November 26, 2022
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Ventura County CEO was accused of harassment before he abruptly retired

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NOTE: This article was posted March 15, 2022 and updated March 16 to add information about allegations of misconduct by Mike Powers, originally reported by the Thousand Oaks Acorn.

The Ventura County Board of Supervisors may have violated state open meetings law when it put County Executive Officer Mike Powers on administrative leave on March 8, two days before he retired, according to a leading expert on open meetings and public records in California.

Powers, 59, retired abruptly on March 10, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.

County officials have declined to comment on the reason for his retirement, but they have confirmed he was placed on paid administrative leave two days before he stepped down.

On March 16, the Thousand Oaks Acorn reported the reason for that leave was an allegation that Powers sexually harassed a female employee in the county executive office. An outside attorney the county hired to investigate found the allegation was substantiated by “a preponderance of the evidence,” which is the typical burden of proof in a civil lawsuit.

Powers denied the allegations to the Acorn and said he retired in part because he felt he was treated unfairly during the investigation.

Mike Powers

The Business Times submitted a public records request to the county on March 14, asking for documents related to any complaints against Powers. The county had not replied by press time on March 16.

According to the Acorn, the outside investigation found that Powers repeatedly kissed a female employee without her consent and continued to pursue a romantic relationship with her despite her refusals. He also referred to the woman with what she said was a racially insensitive nickname, amending “Pico Rivera” to her name, even though she was from a different part of the Los Angeles area.

The Board of Supervisors decided to place Powers on leave during a closed session on March 8. State law allows elected officials to hold closed meetings for a few purposes, including discussions of ongoing or potential lawsuits; real estate negotiations; contract or salary negotiations with unions or individual employees; and the hiring, firing, discipline or evaluation of an employee.

Public agencies must state the reason for the closed session beforehand, and are generally required to announce any decisions made in closed session as soon as the session ends.

The Ventura County Board of Supervisors did not announce Powers’ leave after its March 8 closed session; the decision did not become publicly known until after Powers retired. And the publicly circulated agenda item for that closed session did not mention any possible review or discipline of the CEO. Instead, it said that the board would hold a “conference with legal counsel” regarding “significant exposure to litigation” in three separate cases.

“If what they did was decide to put this person on administrative leave, then that decision should have been disclosed,” said David Snyder, the executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition.

Snyder is a lawyer and a former journalist and an expert on the Brown Act, the state law that covers public access to government meetings. In addition to the lack of a public announcement of Powers’ leave, Snyder said the Board of Supervisors also appears to have violated the Brown Act by releasing an agenda for the closed session that did not mention discussion of the CEO’s employment or potential discipline.

“If that’s what they were discussing, that should have been called out separately on the agenda,” he said. “There may be overlap with some anticipated litigation, but it should have been separately agendized. … You can’t go into closed session for a valid reason and then talk about something else once you’re in there.”

The county’s chief attorney, County Counsel Tiffany North, said in an email to the Business Times that the board’s actions were legal.  

“There was nothing required to be reported out of closed session under the Brown Act since Mike Powers remained in a paid employee status. The items were properly listed and described on the closed session agenda,” North said. She declined to comment further.

The Brown Act states that “action taken to appoint, employ, dismiss, accept the resignation of, or otherwise affect the employment status of a public employee in closed session” must be reported publicly after the closed session.

“I think putting somebody on administrative leave falls under ‘affecting the employment status of a public employee,’” even if the leave is paid, Snyder said.

“Where there’s ambiguity, the default under the Brown Act should be to transparency,” he said, pointing to the California Constitution’s requirement that any law or court ruling “shall be broadly construed if it furthers the people’s right of access, and narrowly construed if it limits the right of access.”

“It may be the case that the county has some other legal authority they’re relying on to say administrative leave doesn’t count, but I’m unaware of any such authority,” Snyder said.

Brown Act violations are technically criminal misdemeanors and can be investigated by a district attorney’s office, but Snyder said he’s never heard of such a prosecution in California. The typical remedy for a Brown Act violation is for the city council, board of supervisors or other government body to re-do the disputed action, Snyder said. That could mean publishing a new agenda and then meeting again for another vote on the matter in question, or holding a public discussion and vote on an item that was originally voted in closed session.

Or, in a case like the one in Ventura County where the closed session appears legitimate but the dispute is over the lack of an announcement of the decision, the remedy could be a public disclosure of how each supervisor voted in closed session.

Powers retired about eight months after the board approved a new five-year contract for the CEO. Powers received a 5% pay increase, bringing his annual salary to $328,975.

The Board of Supervisors plans to appoint an interim CEO at its next meeting, on March 22. In the meantime, the top-ranking executive in county government is Assistant CEO Mike Pettit.

The county of Ventura is the biggest local government in the tri-county region, with a budget of more than $2.4 billion and nearly 10,000 employees. Powers worked for the county for around 30 years, the last 11 as its chief executive.

On the day of his retirement, he told the Business Times he thinks “things are in a good place” at the county. Supervisor Carmen Ramirez, who represents the Oxnard area and also chairs the Board of Supervisors, said in a statement emailed to the Business Times that the county has “an excellent leadership team in place to assure continuity of operations while a new CEO is selected.”

8 Comments

  1. Nunya says:

    Retirement means he keeps his benefits and salary versus being fired for cause. Only self-serving there. The county and tax payers will be left footing the bill for his “alleged” misdeeds. There’s no integrity in his actions or subsequent escape plan.

  2. Mark says:

    One can only wonder if anything would ever come of this issue had it not been leaked to the press. Were there any other abuses of authority that occurred under Mr. Powers’ watch? Did anyone else collude with him in any form of discrimination or any other illegal activity? Was a hostile environment created for any other principled employees who reported infractions? Were there two standards in place regarding discrimination protocols when it came to lower level employees and those privileged with higher pay, status and authority? Ventura County employees and taxpayers deserve that those who set examples in leadership do not contradict the County’s anti-discrimination protocols. We need action and accountability and not merely lip-service and Optics. And more importantly, courage to prevent these kinds of situations from occurring, or worse, being hidden once they do. This recent statement by a Ventura County Supervisor must be upheld. And it must apply first and foremost to the leaders themselves because real-world examples take precedence over principles when it comes to human behavior.

    “Our first concern is for victims. We are committed to ensuring a safe and respectful workplace. And that is why we feel it necessary to speak out now. Our county will not tolerate abuses of power, including any inappropriate behavior, sexual or otherwise, by our employees, including the use of derogatory names.”

  3. TW says:

    No empathy for Powers! “Powers denied the allegations to the Acorn and said he retired in part because he felt he was treated unfairly during the investigation.” ** Kharna!! he never cared to listen to others when they were investigated and treated unfairly by his team!

  4. Brian herzonja says:

    It’s called transparency, Diane. It’s a pretty big deal if the CEO of the county is involved with a sexual harassment case. The citizens deserve to know what our leaders are engaged in. Character, values and integrity don’t seem to matter as much and it’s disgusting that one would recommend turning a blind eye rather than addressing the issue. I would hope that you, Diane are not part of any decision making entity within the county.

  5. Dianne McKay says:

    What of a confidential document being given to the Acorn? That is an internal problem. Whether or not there was a Brown Act Violation is a technical issue to be argued. The so-called “leak” is damaging to all parties and made this an unnecessary spectacle that can destabilize our county. There is a lot of leadership turnover already known for 2023. I don’t envy them, but hope the supervisors, current and new next year, keep their eyes on the stability and needed economic recovery of our region.

    • John says:

      Have to disagree with you dianne….it is pretty plain to see that the unnecessary spectacle came in the form of mike powers and his disgusting behavior.

      • Mark says:

        John, well at least he thought of his family when he chose to retire rather than fight the accusations for his integrity, right? I mean, give the guy some credit.

    • Mark says:

      So, Diane, for how long is a substantiated “hostile work environment” kept as an internal matter? To me that sounds sneakingly familiar to the kinds of messages that dysfunctional families feed to their abused children. So what’s your take in this? Why do you seem so intent on keeping eyes off of this situation that this “Powers that was” is leaving with such ingratiating words? Is there more to find with further investigation? Was this an isolated incident? You know, strong men like this (who tap-out at the first sign of significant opposition I might add) seldom surround themselves with anyone who might be critical of their smooth operations when they are unethical…