If the current situation regarding the Orange County Fairgrounds were a movie scene, we’d be at the moment in a western where everyone in the bar is frozen, with their hands hovering over their holsters, waiting for the main character to make a move.
A host of players — from Fairgrounds officials to businessmen to prosecutors — are anxiously anticipating Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s final decision on the sale of Orange County’s fairgrounds.
And most have their hands near the trigger of either a lawsuit or an investigation.
Here’s the scene:
The city of Costa Mesa’s $96 million deal with Facilities Management West to buy the Fairgrounds appears dead because the Legislature never took up the needed changes to transfer the property.
But Schwarzenegger and FMW appear headed to a separate deal because the state’s Department of General Services went forward with a Sept. 30 bid process that many observers say was tailor made for FMW.
State officials have said they expect to announce a specific partner by mid-month.
Yet there are a number of actors who could spoil that party.
In the background of all of the negotiations to sell the Fairgrounds over the past year has loomed an ongoing Orange County district attorney investigation. The probe was launched after the Fair Board’s bid to buy the property through a nonprofit died. No one knows the status of the probe or its direction.
There are two other parties close to filing lawsuits depending on the governor’s action. Either action, or both, could also get law enforcement agencies involved depending on what comes out of the discovery process of each legal challenge.
Tel Phil Enterprises — which runs the OC Marketplace swap meet at the Fairgrounds and also attempted to negotiate with city officials on a property purchase — last week sent state officials a legal threat.
The company is arguing that the new request for proposals process has been rigged in favor of FMW because the bid terms so closely mirror the terms of the purchase attempted by FMW and the city of Costa Mesa.
“Structuring the RFP II so closely to a negotiated sale that the Legislature has refused to ratify suggests favoritism to a pre-determined bidder,” read the letter.
Accusations of conflict of interest are also being put squarely at the feet of Schwarzenegger himself because his campaign finance chairman, Orange County public relations guru Gary Hunt, has been hired by FMW.
Officials, like Orange County Democratic Chairman Frank Barbaro, say publicly that Schwarzenegger is pushing so hard on the sale of the Fairgrounds because he owes a thank you to Hunt for raising so much money on his behalf.
Even the governor’s own Fair Board has also gone fully rogue on him, sending him a letter — seen by many as the precursor to another lawsuit — challenging the title ownership of the Fairgrounds.
Fair Board members are essentially arguing that the 32nd District Agricultural Association bought the property in 1949. That means the state doesn’t solely own the land, argue the Fair Board’s attorneys.
State officials say the Fair Board is wrong and plan to continue with the sale.
We are fast approaching a climatic moment in the long saga. It will be interesting to see if it ends like so many of Schwarzenegger’s movies — with guns a-blazing.
— NORBERTO SANTANA, JR.