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Fired O.C. fairgrounds CEO claims retaliation for her participation in investigation of former board members

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Kathy Kramer was dismissed from her position as chief executive of the OC Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa. She had previously accepted a job as president and CEO of the Central Washington State Fair.
(File Photo)

Former OC Fair & Event Center chief executive Kathy Kramer, whose firing was announced Monday, alleges she has been retaliated against for participating in an investigation into allegations of misconduct by two former board members.

Kramer’s assertions are the latest twist in what have been a tumultuous few weeks for the state-owned property in Costa Mesa, which is home to the annual Orange County Fair.

Kramer’s departure from the leadership post she had held since January 2015 was already pending, as the Central Washington State Fair announced Oct. 15 that she would become its new president and CEO, effective Feb. 1.

The Central Washington State Fair Assn. announced Kathy Kramer’s new position Tuesday. Her move came as a surprise to the Orange County Fair Board.
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But the OC Fair & Event Center’s board of directors said Monday that it had voted to dismiss her, effective immediately.

The board of the OC Fair & Event Center announced Monday that it had voted to dismiss Chief Executive Kathy Kramer, less than two weeks after the Central Washington State Fair announced Oct. 15 that Kramer would be its new president and CEO, effective Feb. 1.

The board’s announcement did not detail the rationale behind the decision.

But a statement from Kramer on Tuesday alleged that “the unsuspected termination is motivated as a result of two previous board members being forced by the governor’s office ... to resign from their appointment on the OC Fair Board in June of 2018 as a result of an investigation around allegations of bullying and harassment of staff where Ms. Kramer offered evidence on behalf of the victims.”

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“Following their departure, the working conditions continued to deteriorate — creating a working environment she could no longer tolerate due to retaliation by the board of directors for her participation in the investigation of the dismissed board members,” the statement said.

The Fair & Event Center’s nine board members are appointed by the governor.

The statement didn’t identify the two former board members in question, and Kramer wrote in a follow-up email that she was “not able to provide any more detail or verification, as legal action [is] being considered.”

Two board members — Nick Berardino and Stan Tkaczyk — resigned from the panel in June 2018.

When asked Tuesday whether there is any truth to Kramer’s allegations, Tkaczyk responded, “She has her own thoughts and I would rather not comment on any of them.”

Berardino did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday, nor did Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office.

Berardino and Tkaczyk’s resignations took place when former Gov. Jerry Brown was still in office.

According to the Fair & Event Center, the board voted to terminate Kramer’s employment during a closed session Thursday. To replace her on an interim basis, the board turned to another member of the organization’s staff leadership team, Michele Richards, vice president of business development.

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“I appreciate the board’s confidence in appointing me as interim CEO and I look forward to leading this terrific team,” Richards said Tuesday. “We are very focused on moving forward together to fulfill our community mission.”

However, several details surrounding Kramer’s departure remain unknown or, in some cases, appear disputed.

For instance, Kramer’s statement said she “advised the board in September of her need to step down in January of 2020 due to the job becoming untenable due to retaliatory acts of the board of directors.” But board member Robert Ruiz — who until recently was the panel’s chairman — said he learned of her new position from a Central Washington Fair Assn. news release Oct. 15.

The Daily Pilot reached out to Richards and current Fair Board Chairwoman Sandra Cervantes for additional comment Monday evening, but a Fair & Event Center spokeswoman asked that questions regarding Kramer be sent via email.

As of Tuesday afternoon, fairgrounds officials had not answered more than a dozen emailed questions.

The statement from Kramer touted her accomplishments as head of the Fair & Event Center, saying she “led the organization in achieving the highest annual OC Fair attendance in 2018 and the highest gross OC Fair revenues in 2019 [and] created many community giveback programs benefiting local organizations in Orange County.” It added that the OC Fair “received many industry, community awards and recognitions during her tenure.”

“Ms. Kramer wishes to thank the community for their support and great collaboration and to recognize the amazing staff at [the] OC Fair that have such great passion for delivering one of the top fairs in the country. ... It was truly an honor to lead them for the past five years,” the statement said.

The Fair Board statement also “noted that the staff of the OC Fair & Event Center comprises one of the most exceptional fair teams in the country.”

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However, it concluded, “it has been the efforts of this team, and not just one individual, that have created and sustained one of the largest and most successful fairs in the United States.”

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