With an angry and barley restrained public looking on, the Costa Mesa City Council on Tuesday approved a ground lease for Facilities Management West to take over the Orange County Fairgrounds on a 4-1 vote.
The approval, however, might be moot. It came the same day Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger put out a request for proposals for the fairgrounds property — another ratcheting up of his longstanding threat to sell the 150-acre property without city involvement.
Nonetheless, the majority of council members and the few others who publicly support the proposed $96 million deal saw the ground lease approval as the final step in a long, arduous process to complete the sale.
But for many who showed up at City Hall, it was another infuriating example of how the city has kept the public in the dark on the deal.
At one point, the audience started shouting at the council dais last night as council members started to debate lease documents, which few people in the building had access to.
That was after Councilwoman Katrina Foley protested that the overhead projector for the public was unreadable because the type was too small.
When council members figured out there were multiple versions of the lease circulating among the public, even featuring notes from Councilman Gary Monahan, they abruptly halted the meeting.
As usual with the Fairgrounds negotiations, the public and some council members were seeing key documents at the last minute.
On Tuesday, after the crowd got rowdy, the council ran photocopies, and the meeting went on.
The lease debate — which went on for five hours mainly due to a litany of questions from Foley — eventually concluded, winning easy approval from four other council members with a minimum of questions.
The negotiations over the ground lease have been messy, with both FMW and city officials complaining that the short timelines and pressure from the governor’s office has made it tough to nail down contentious points, such as how the public will have any say or participation in the property’s future.
Last night’s meeting on the ground lease finally spelled it out: The public won’t have any say on how things are run on the property.
“This lease isn’t finished, and it’s not one that should be voted on tonight,” said Janice Posnikoff, a veterinarian involved with the equestrian center. “There’s no reason to make rushed decisions.”
While FMW spokesman Guy Lemmon gave an impassioned speech to council members about the company’s commitment to the Fairgrounds as a public asset, Foley and the public lambasted the fact that their stance in lease negotiations has been anything but inclusive.
Lemmon acknowledged the public concerns: “We do want to be a good partner,” referring to the union with the city as an “alliance.”
Yet few in the public, and Foley, seemed to accept his speech.
“Every time you ask for some sort of community use or some sort of representation, or some sort of public control, it has been struck down,” said fair activist Greg Ridge to council members.
Ridge called FMW a “partner that doesn’t want to be a partner.”
He summed up the council’s options, noting, “You guys have a gun to your head or a knife down below.”
And Theresa Sears — a leader in the OC Fairgrounds Preservation Society — told council members they weren’t fooling the public because despite all the holes in the existing lease, it was clear where the council was headed.
“I fully expect you to pass this tonight,” Sears said.
While Foley tried to motion for a delay — saying, “We as a council haven’t had the time necessary to have a full, informed and thorough review of the documents” — no other council member agreed.
— NORBERTO SANTANA, JR.
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