By David M. Greenwald
Woodland, CA – Last year many in the local community were stunned when the Yolo Food Bank announced the termination of Executive Director Michael Bisch. This month, Bisch and his attorneys filed a suit against numerous public officials in Yolo County, alleging “alarming constitutional violations, defamation, and tortious interference by a group of Northern California governmental entities.”
The complaint argues “the governmental entities acted in concert to discredit, silence, and ultimately cause the termination of a talented and accomplished food bank executive director, Plaintiff Michael Bisch, whose work had benefited the community, shed light on important new food assistance legislation, and strengthened one of California’s leading food recovery and distribution nonprofits.”
The suit was filed March 10 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California.
Among the allegations in the lawsuit was a meeting on March 11, 2022, where three city managers including Davis City Manager Mike Webb and Woodland City Manager Ken Hiatt “met to discuss Plaintiff Bisch’s public advocacy on the Food Assistance Mandates and whistleblower activities.”
They alleged at this time that Bisch and the Yolo Food Bank were allegedly “terminating or threatening to terminate subcontracts with partner nonprofits who consider or accept funding from the County related to the expansion of the edible food recovery program.”
Three members of the board of Supervisors—Angel Barajas, Oscar Villegas and Don Saylor—allegedly “pressure(d) the YFB Board to terminate Plaintiff Bisch’s employment [which] ensued and ultimately proved successful on May 31, 2022.”
According to the suit, they “directly threaten(ed) withholding funding unless YFB address the ‘Bisch’ problem—with a written letter directly implying that Bisch should be fired in order for YFB to get the awaited funding.”
The funds refer to $1.2 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act that had been promised to the Yolo Food Bank.
The suit specifically names the three Supervisors, County CFO Chad Rinde, West Sacramento City Manager Aaron Laurel along with City Managers Hiatt and Webb, as well as the county and cities of Woodland, Davis and West Sacramento, which, according to the lawsuit, all played a role in the ultimate termination of Bisch on May 31, 2022.
Bisch has previously sued the Yolo Food Bank, alleging wrongful termination. That suit, filed in Yolo County last August, names several current and former members of the Food Bank’s board of directors.
According to the lawsuit, Bisch’s “disclosure concerned wrongdoing at the highest levels of Defendant Yolo County and Defendant Cities of West Sacramento, Davis, and Woodland local governments, whose governments were specifically tasked with and responsible for the implementation of the Food Assistance Mandates.”
The firing of Bisch last year came as a surprise to many in the community. He took over as Executive Director in January 2018 and “is widely recognized and credited for saving YFB from insolvency and achieving dramatic improvements in the operations, financial strength, and reputation of YFB.”
On March 18, 2022, a letter from Yolo County Board of Supervisors signed by Chair Angel Barajas and Vice Chair Oscar Villegas to the Board of Directors requested that the Board of Directors “act immediately to protect local food recovery organizations—a vital part of the County food recovery network—against actions that compromise their ability to provide food to those in need.”
They allege that the leadership of the organization was acting to deter “small food pantries, churches, and other organizations from accepting local government funding and retaliating against those that accept funding by curtailing their access to donated food.”
Bisch, according to the letter, believed that the approach by the county to SB 1383 was “legally deficient” and “advocated for local governments to ‘fully fund a surplus edible food recovery program countywide” by providing a greater local contribution ($2 million or more annually) to Yolo Food Bank.’”
Bisch told the Vanguard in an email after filing the August lawsuit, “I believe I was fired by the Yolo Food Bank board for voicing my opinion to government representatives about SB 1383 noncompliance and filing formal complaints against the YFB board and against the County of Yolo and cities of Davis, Winters, West Sacramento and Woodland.”
In that lawsuit, Bisch alleges “that YFB and certain YFB board members, in response to Bisch simply performing his job—including advancing public policy by sharing subject matter expert opinions at hearings, meetings, in official reports, and in private to government officials—retaliated against Plaintiff Bisch in bad faith, ultimately terminating Plaintiff Bisch for no valid reason.”
According to his attorney Sanjiv Singh, “The termination was so untimely and egregious, it is alleged, that other YFB employees resigned in protest and issued Letters of No Confidence to the YFB board.”
During the course of these allegedly egregious retaliatory campaigns culminating in Bisch’s termination after four years of dedicated service, “it is further alleged that YFB board members advanced defamatory remarks about Plaintiff Bisch to discredit him and other YFB staff.”
Bisch added, “I was fired for doing what an executive director of a nonprofit is supposed to do. If we see misstatements of fact by public officials that jeopardize our mission or harm the vulnerable populations we serve, we have a duty to correct and challenge such misstatements. I lost my job for doing my duty.”