Thursday, January 27, 2011 | The Orange County Fair Board, choc full of new appointments from just-departed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, will today announce that it wants to run the 150-acre fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.
The announcement comes ironically just as the board is negotiating to run the fair for a private firm, Facilities Management West, which is trying to purchase the property from the state. However, a lawsuit filed by activists and elected officials has temporarily frozen that deal, and Gov. Jerry Brown doesn’t seem nearly as enthusiastic about seeing it go forward as Schwarzenegger was.
With that in mind, Fair Board members appear to be moving to formally resurrect their plan to share revenues with the state from the fairgrounds.
The plan, according to sources, would seek to entice Brown’s administration into allowing expanded uses at the fairgrounds, in essence putting the fairgrounds on the road to becoming an LA Live-type venue, with many more events throughout the year tied to entertainment.
There’s also talk of putting a dome over the Pacific Amphitheatre to allow for more concerts throughout the year.
Activists who have fought all attempts to sell the fair over the past two years not only oppose the idea, but say the fair board’s attempts to try to both sell and run the fair shows why the officials need to step down.
“They’re appalling stewards of the public trust,” said Sandy Genis, a former Mayor of Costa Mesa and President of the OC Fairgrounds Preservation Society. “It’s time for them to step aside and have people who really have the public trust to take over.”
Genis said the fair board plan should serve as a warning to the newest appointees from Schwarzenegger, adding “They may have walked into this cesspool without even realizing it.”
Activists have been fighting the fair board since they began moving to privatize the fairgrounds in the summer of 2009.
Genis and other activists gradually stepped up their involvement against the fair board, mainly over what they say are attempts to lobby Sacramento. They point to the hiring of former State Senator Dick Ackerman.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas investigated Ackerman’s involvement and concluded, “there is no evidence that the OCFEC (fair board) retained Mr. Ackerman to influence legislative or administrative action.”
However, a contract between the Fair Board and Ackerman’s law firm, Nossaman LLP, and LSA Associates, has language that the activists say points to lobbying. It calls for Ackerman to be “acting as liaison with state elected officials relative to the proposed sale.”
The contract language makes Genis question the District Attorney’s investigation.
“If they are hiring Mr. Ackerman to be a liaison with state officials, I have to wonder which state officials he was supposed to contact because he is a former state Senator and there is a revolving door limitation for lobbyists,” Genis said.
Ackerman has not responded to several calls seeking comment. Fair CEO Steve Beazley also refused comment on how Ackerman was paid, or why a subcontractor was utilized in the first place, saying the district attorney’s report was the final word.
Under the agreement, Ackerman was slated to be paid $85,000 although individual billings from LSA to the state’s fair construction fund show more than $150,000 was spent.
The state agency that fair board members used to funnel the lobbying effort through — the California Construction Authority — is in the midst of a controversial audit after the sudden exit of it’s former executive director.
In a Nov. 9 letter obtained by Voice of OC, Becky Bailey-Findley — then the interim executive officer of the CCA — alerted the CEOs of all state fairs in California that there was an ongoing probe.
The CCA is a construction agency that works exclusively for state fairs and fairgrounds and senior fair officials make up the board of directors.
In fact, two high-ranking OC Fair and Event center staffers — VP of Operations Jerome Hoban and the Chief of Financial Operations, Dena Heathman — are on the board of directors for the CCA.
The CCA’s Executive Officer Tom Baker, had been with the agency for 17 years until this year.
According to Bailey-Findley’s letter, “On October 13, 2010 Tom stepped down.”
Baker did not respond to calls for comment.
Bailey Findley, a former OC Fairgrounds CEO, was hired as interim executive officer of the CCA to preside over audits. She later took a job with Facilities Management West.
“The CDFA (California Division of Fairs and Expositions) audit team has been asked to perform an audit focused on the transfer and use of funds from the expenditure plan for fair capital projects,” wrote Bailey Findley.
Beazley downplayed the audit saying, “I don’t know that it’s anything other than a routine audit.”