Wednesday, August 11, 2010 | Come one, come all. … Step right up to Sell-the-Fair! It’s the hottest new ride at the Orange County Fairgrounds.
Immediately after being strapped into your seat, you shoot up in a rightward tilt toward a huge sign emblazoned with the word “Privatization.” Then you veer down into the deep, dark Fair Board Tunnel.
After reaching a state of complete disorientation, you’ll be hurled into the FMW Vortex where objects are clear at first but get fuzzier the longer you stare at them. Finally, you are spit out into the Costa Mesa Conflict Swamp and covered by accusations of self-dealing and payback.
Thank you for riding, Orange County taxpayers, and please check to make sure you have all the belongings you started with…
This bizarre, yearlong ride took more twists and turns last night at the Costa Mesa City Council meeting. The stated point of the meeting was to give the public details on the deal it struck in June with the state on behalf of a private company, called Facilities Management West, to buy the Fairgrounds for $96 million.
But the ride featured much more than that.
After fighting the sale of the Fairgrounds for most of the year, Costa Mesa’s city leaders now seem to be the only public officials who support it, other than Planning Commissioner Jim Righeimer (who was an appointed advisor on the deal and is running for a council seat).
At this week’s meeting, Republican council members Gary Monahan (a lead negotiator), Eric Bever, Wendy Leece and Allan Mansoor called the plan better than the alternative of continued state ownership and supported the privatization plan.
Katrina Foley, a Democrat, is the lone dissenter on the council after once being a lead negotiator along with Monahan.
Yet Foley is not alone in Orange County political circles in questioning the deal, which was initially adopted by council members on a 4-1 vote in June while under direct threat from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to auction the property.
Cautionary alarms are also coming from across the aisle, sounded principally by Republican county Supervisor John Moorlach and the libertarian editorial board at the Orange County Register.
Meanwhile, the OC Fair and Events Center Board appointed by Schwarzenegger is outwardly defying the governor’s request to stand down, continuing to pitch alternative proposals that would leave the property in public hands.
And a coalition of former Fair Board members — Pat Velasquez, Ruben Smith and current Orange County Democratic Party Chairman Frank Barbaro — have now joined with current board member David Padilla to send a letter to the governor’s office warning him that they have called on legislators to reject the deal they describe as turning “the OC Fairgrounds into a commercial operation.”
From the letter:
Orange County taxpayers already get back less of their state tax dollars in the form of governmental services than taxpayers in any other California county. Now, this hastily negotiated deal between the State of California, the City of Costa Mesa and Facilities Management West threatens to destroy an important community asset that has served Orange County well for many years. There are 58 counties in California, most with local county fairs, but now, only Orange County is being asked to sacrifice its Fair.
The letter also questions how much budget relief the state will receive as well as the high debt load (purchase price of $96 million) that a private operator will take on to buy the property.
“The transformation will destroy a much-loved civic resource and replace it with a purely commercial, urban entertainment complex driven only by the bottom line,” the letter stated.
Barbaro said he has become angry and frustrated over the past year as he’s watched plans to sell the fair continue to morph. He’s now tired of the ride and said Orange County residents want off.
The council’s recent action drove him to act, he said. He mocked the formation of a joint powers authority that provides a shell entity for purchasing the Fairgrounds.
“They were allegedly forming a joint powers agreement,” Barbaro said, “but the city gave all the power to Facilities Management West … and the only joint is what they must have been smoking to make that decision.”
On Tuesday night, most City Council members ardently defended their decision.
“It saves the fair and keeps the existing ground uses,” Monahan said.
He decried the letter from former board members to the state, as well as a protest filed the American Fairs and Festivals (which initially competed with FMW for an opportunity to run the property) that the final agreement doesn’t satisfy the city’s own stated goals.
“We have local control, we will have more control now than ever before,” Monahan said. “This gives us a lot more control than any other option.”
“It brings in revenue during a sorely needed time,” he said, referring to the rent payments to the city. “There are no taxpayers’ dollars at risk.”
Other plans, such as the current Fair Board’s idea to share revenue with Sacramento from events, “keeps control out of our hands,” Monahan said, and would make this summer’s ballot initiative “irrelevant” because the state is exempt from such local land-use restrictions and planning regulations.
“We believe we have the best deal for Costa Mesa,” he said. “It may not be perfect, but it’s a lot better than what we have now and a lot better than other options out there.”
“You asked us to save the fair … and that’s what we’ve been trying to do,” said Leece, visibly frustrated by allegations that the entire process has been a closed-door event. She pleaded with the public to understand that the council is trying to be as transparent as it can, although most activists in the audience chuckled because of the lack of transparency throughout the negotiations.
Bever lashed out at the American Fairs and Festivals leadership team for their protest, saying they walked away from the negotiating table over a down payment disagreement. City Manager Allan Roeder called that description inaccurate.
And Mansoor said opposition to the deal in Sacramento had more to do with unions trying to protect state jobs than his “Rule of Law” immigration resolution supporting Arizona that triggered outrage among state Latino lawmakers.
Foley, however, methodically pointed out flaws in the negotiation process that resulted in the FMW deal. And she now believes that the city isn’t doing enough due diligence on the property.
“We may not be learning everything that they [FMW] are learning,” she said.
Foley accused the city’s main consultant — and former OC Fair chief executive — Becky Bailey-Findley of having a conflict because she had discussions with FMW about becoming an interim CEO for the new company after the sale was negotiated.
That, Foley said, has left the city without an independent lens on the property.
“She doesn’t work for us anymore,” Foley said.
No other city official contradicted Foley during the meeting. Afterwards, Bailey-Findley said she had just returned from Europe and had no idea what Foley was referencing.
FMW Spokesman Guy Lemon confirmed he had a limited private discussion with Bailey-Findley about working as an interim CEO. However, he said he got initial approval for the talks from Roeder before discussing anything with Bailey-Findley.
Roeder did not return a call seeking comment.
Foley called on Tuesday, with Roeder’s consent, during the meeting to hire an independent review of Bailey-Findley’s work as well as obtaining duplicates of all documents delivered to her.
Foley also pointed out some confusion between the city and the Fairgrounds regarding access to employees on the site as well as documents guaranteeing inspection access.
Voice of OC reported last week that current OC Fair CEO Steve Beazley said he hadn’t received any correspondence from Sacramento allowing FMW access to the site. And he admitted he’s resisted allowing FMW access to employees because of the uncertainties of the deal.
Council members are expected to return by next month with a final sales agreement on the property as well as initiating ground lease negotiations.
Yet that assumes that the state Legislature adopts a bill changing ownership of the Orange County Fair brand and dissolving the state entity that actually runs the Fairgrounds.