Recent Events Could Signal Beginning of Fair Board’s End

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Friday, April 23, 2010 |The call came late Wednesday night to Kristina Dodge, who had to step out of a movie premier. On the other end was a message from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“They just requested we don’t take action today,” Dodge said Thursday morning after pulling the plug on a proposal by the Orange County fair board that would have left fair board members in charge of the county’s fairgrounds in exchange for sending some vendor revenue to the state.

The call very likely marked the beginning of the end for a fair board – packed with Republican heavyweights – that nearly a year ago convinced Schwarzenegger to put the OC fairgrounds on the auction block and has since tried in vain to regain control over the 150-acre site in Costa Mesa.

The original scheme of the group, which included Dodge, Dave Ellis, Dale Dykema, Mary Young and Joyce Tucker was to have a nonprofit it controlled buy the property on the cheap. But the plan crumbled in the face of staunch public opposition, charges of conflict of interest and an ongoing district attorney’s investigation.

David Padilla, a fair board member who wasn’t in the group that tried to gain control of the fairgrounds, said the message delivered from Sacramento was hard to miss.

“I think we just got a vote of no confidence,” said Padilla, who has been critical over the board’s lack of transparency during the past year.

Now it is looking like the fairgrounds will stay a public property. Costa Mesa city officials flew to Sacramento this week to present Schwarzenegger with a $96 million offer for the site.

The city has been scrambling in recent months to keep the fairgrounds out of private hands. In February, they announced a ballot initiative to change the city’s general plan and create tighter zoning of the fairgrounds. That goes before voters in June.

Then in March they successfully lobbied the governor’s office to enter into exclusive private negotiations in March. That effort culminated Wednesday with the offer, which comes with the participation of undisclosed private investors.

To date, the public knows little about how the property will be purchased without using Costa Mesa general fund dollars. City Manager Alan Roeder admits the process so far has been muddled, with multiple charges of violations of state open meeting laws. Roeder said he’s committed to getting the full details in front of the public as soon as possible.

Close of escrow is slated for Oct. 31, just a few months before Schwarzenegger leaves office.

That means it’s a deadline that the governor is personally invested in meeting, said officials close to the negotiations. In essence, Schwarzenegger is putting his chips in with Costa Mesa because if the deal falls apart, there may not be time to put another one together before he leaves office.

Costa Mesa officials are staying confident in public but also admit they are largely reacting to events out of their control. Buying the fairgrounds wasn’t one of their yearly goals.

After months of negotiations, amidst mid-year budget cuts and reduced staffing, they are tired, even a bit frustrated, and feeling as if they’ve been charged with cleaning up someone else’s mess.

Among their biggest challenges is selling the public on a plan that has been created in a hurry and in private. And they have their own internal jockeying going on with various factions looking to influence the process to select a main financial partner.

Meanwhile, hundreds of vendors and event promoters are in limbo, frustrated because they don’t know their options — especially whether they can renew their contracts — with the property potentially changing hands. Many are blaming the fair board.

“This fair board lit a fire that could have burned the fairgrounds to the ground,” said an irate Mike Robins, a cigar vendor at the fairgrounds.

Yet the same faction that created the mess is still trying to keep its grip on the fairgrounds.

On Thursday, the much speculated-about proposal to leave the fair board in place and cut Sacramento into some monies that have apparently been held back in previous years was pulled off the board’s agenda, despite a week-long publicity blitz.

Reporters were called ahead of time to see the plan. Some board members were briefed privately. At an employee meeting on Tuesday, CEO Steve Beazley called on employees to come to the chamber and support the fair board during the unveiling.

But when the meeting came, the proposal just quietly died. Dodge announced that because of the governor’s call, “out of respect, we’ll take this up at a later date.”

Responding to the governor’s message, Dodge later told reporters, “we are not in competition with them (the City of Costa Mesa). We are supporting them.”

When asked whether this spelled the end for the fairgrounds board, Dodge only replied “I’m not going to speculate on that.”

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