Old Battles Revive on Fair Board

Chaos at the Fair
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Just as the Orange County Fair Board moves to impanel a citizens oversight review of the failed, three-year attempt to sell the fairground, long-simmering tensions on the panel of gubernatorial appointees from both Democratic and Republican administrations have begun to boil over.

For months, Gov. Jerry Brown’s newest appointees to the Fair Board have battled against those of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger over a variety of issues regarding the direction of the OC Fair & Event Center.

The battles — some behind the scenes, some in public view — have ranged from the lease to Tel Phil Enterprises to operate the swap meet at the fair, a rental agreement with the OC Marathon, and most recently the status of the equestrian facility at the fairground.

But underlying all of these issues remains the attempt by the board, beginning in 2009 and ending last year, to privatize the iconic 163-acre property in Costa Mesa. New board members, most notably Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, continue to push for a full and public accounting of that effort with particular emphasis on whether anything illegal took place.

Meanwhile, members of the group that attempted the sale, including former Chairman Dave Ellis and current Chairwoman Joyce Tucker, have pushed back.

Tucker was quoted in the Daily Pilot this week criticizing the oversight committee as a “witch hunt” and complaining that the Orange County Business Council wouldn’t participate on the panel because it was stacked against the board majority.

At Thursday’s regular meeting of the Fair Board, Tucker publicly apologized and backed away from both comments.

Tucker’s apology notwithstanding, the two factions went at it over whether to allow the fairground’s equestrian facility to stay open during the annual fair.

“We’re on a roll to a reallocation of the property, and that’s fine,” said a frustrated Ellis during debate on the issue, which featured open clashes among board members Ellis, Berardino, Ali Janangiri and Stan Tkaczyk (who is a Voice of OC board member).

Ellis believes the equestrian facility is a waste of resources because the fairgrounds pays more for offsite parking than it takes in on horse stable rents. He has lobbied in recent years to remove the facility.

At one point, Jahangiri attempted to halt debate over the equestrian center by pronouncing, “This is getting heated.”

Berardino responded, “You’re not in control of the meeting.”

Dominating the meeting, however, was the issue of the oversight committee. Fair activists attending the meeting said the campaign led by Ellis and Tucker against the oversight committee was poorly thought out and reminiscent of the animosity of the last three years.

“We took a huge step back,” said Greg Ridge, a Costa Mesa resident who has been active with the Orange County Fairgrounds Preservation Society, which successfully sued the state in 2011 to halt the sale of the fairgrounds.

There were also heated questions over why California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office won’t return as the Fair Board’s attorney.

The attorney general’s office acts as legal representative for most state panels like the Fair Board, but 2009, then Attorney General Jerry Brown refused to continue representing the board after the privatization plan imploded.

The longtime position of the attorney general’s office was that it would return as legal representative for the Fair Board once all issues with the sale of the property were resolved.

That seemed to be the case last month when Harris’ office wrote the Fair Board, saying that based on Fair & Event Center CEO Steve Beazley’s comments, it was ready to come back.

That apparently gave Beazley pause. “I was uncomfortable with that language,” Beazley said to board members. “I couldn’t let that stand.”

Beazley explained that when he saw that language, he called Sacramento and informed them about the citizens oversight panel looking into the sale.

After that, Chief Assistant Attorney General Mark J. Breckler sent another letter rescinding their offer to return, stating, “We have recently learned that all of the issues relating to the proposed sale of the District’s fairgrounds have not been resolved. Therefore, we are rescinding our March 29, 2012 letter and are continuing our authorization to you dated December 1, 2009, to continue to retain outside counsel.”

There is an open question about what exactly the attorney general’s office meant by “all of the issues” related to the sale of the fairgrounds.

For example, there’s also an ongoing investigation by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission into whether the state’s revolving-door law was violated by former Republican state Sen. Dick Ackerman, who did work on behalf of the board during the privatization attempt.

A press spokesperson for the attorney general’s office declined to comment on the issue.

The Fair Board ultimately approved a scope of work for the review panel Thursday, along with a membership roster and a list of 71 people suggested by Ellis that should be interviewed.

The Ellis list is a virtual Who’s Who of people involved in the sales lobby process, such as Gary Hunt, former Schwarzenegger campaign finance chairman who works in the Irvine office of California Strategies.

Meanwhile, the citizens oversight committee membership also includes a Who’s Who of activists against the sale, including several from the preservation society, Orange County Marketplace vendors and nearby homeowner groups.

On Thursday, Schwarzenegger appointees also voiced worries that the citizens oversight panel would be biased. Jahangiri pushed to have an outside judge or mediator act as chairman of the oversight committee, saying impartiality was paramount. “We don’t want to create a heated situation and conflict,” he said.

“I have my doubts,” Ellis said.

Preservation society activist Theresa Sears, who has been appointed to serve on the citizens oversight committee, credited Ellis for putting together a comprehensive witness list but also warned, “ I would hope that all witnesses will provide all documents we request.”

Sears also told board members that with such a long witness list they might have to consider giving the panel longer than the 120-day sunset it is currently operating under.

Also on Thursday, the Fair Board announced a transition from Beazley as CEO to a temporary, six-month assignment of Jerome Hobin, current vice president of operations.

Please contact Norberto Santana Jr. directly at nsantana@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/norbertosantana.

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