Friday, September 17, 2010 | Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s local Fair Board on Friday formally advised him that the 150-acre Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa was bought by the people of Orange County in 1949 and therefore is not his property to sell.
In front of a packed meeting room, Fair Board attorneys laid out their case that a group of local residents had purchased the fair that year on behalf of the 32nd Agricultural District for $130,000. This means, the attorneys argued, that the state couldn’t necessarily sell the property free and clear.
And with that, the board — made up of influential political players from across Orange County and appointed by the governor — voted unanimously to enter full rogue mode.
Shaking their heads in the audience were officials from Costa Mesa and the private company Facilities Management West, who for months have been trying to seal a $96 million deal to purchase the Fairgrounds from the state.
The governor’s office did not respond to calls seeking comment. But a Sacramento official who has been immersed in the sale negotiations made it clear that the state will not let its right to sell the Fairgrounds go down without a fight.
But with Schwarzenegger’s political life expiring in December, Fair Board members are betting they can outlast him in his yearlong effort to sell off the historic property.
One thing is clear: Members of the Fair Board — pariahs in Orange County since they agreed to sell the property in the first place — are suddenly being looked upon by many as heroes.
“I left all my recriminations outside today,” said Greg Ridge, an activist working with the OC Fairgrounds Preservation Society. “We’re all starting to sing the same chorus.”
State Sen. Lou Correa, who was in the audience, looked approvingly on the Fair Board’s legal research and political timing. “Give them an A for effort,” Correa said. “It’s a good argument in terms of equity.”
The title snag has been known for a while, said state Assemblyman Jose Solorio, who earlier this summer was working to craft legislation enabling the deal with Costa Mesa and Facilities Management West.
Yet Solorio, who was also at the briefing, credits the Fair Board for an astute presentation that crystallized the local ownership of the Fairgrounds, despite the state budget crisis.
Correa, who acknowledged the unique terrain the board was stepping onto, seemed to council a delicate approach toward a governor, who still has a lot of options and power until he’s out of office.
“You want to work with the governor on this. We hope that he sees the merits of keeping the Fairgrounds and doesn’t sell it.”
Schwarzenegger still has cards to play.
There are currently two vacancies on the board. And sources in Sacramento have indicated that those slots could be filled soon with new members who are loyal to the governor.
And the state agency in charge of selling the property is already sounding an aggressive tone.
A spokesman for the state Department of General Services, said that while he wasn’t specifically sure about title issues with the property, he was sure of one thing.
“I do know the Fair Board is appointed by the governor, so they are a state entity,” said General Services spokesman Eric Lamoureux.
Lamoureux also said the title issues raised by the Fair Board attorneys are simply questions that the state has already answered. “Our authority to sell the Fairgrounds was authorized by the legislation.”
Lamoureux added: “There is a significant amount of title research that’s done before we embark on something like this.”
Yet during Friday’s meeting, Fair Board members and fair Chief Executive Steve Beazley said the relationships of the state’s fairs — governed through the agricultural associations — has never been that clear. Beazley, for example, showed examples of other fairs that had sold their property and retained the profits.
Correa summed up the feelings of most in the room Friday.
“Let’s hope it works.”