The California 4th District Court of Appeal on Tuesday upheld a temporary restraining order halting the sale of the Orange County Fairgrounds until Jan. 10, and in doing so put a near-final nail in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plans to sell the 150-acre property in Costa Mesa. 

It’s the third courtroom in the last month to make a call on the sale of the Fairgrounds, which has swirled around in different deal versions for nearly two years.

In recent weeks, a group of fair vendors sued the state, arguing that officials hijacked the public bidding process to benefit a company with connections into the Schwarzenegger administration.

They were joined in the suit by two Orange County Democratic legislators — Assemblyman Jose Solorio and state Senator Lou Correa — and Costa Mesa City Councilwoman Katrina Foley.

The company, Facilities Management West, disputes those claims saying opponents are trying to force through the legal system to do what they couldn’t’ achieve in the political arena.

Last week an Orange County Superior Court judge refused a request for a permanent injunction against the sale.

Today’s action by the appellate court is similar to the delay granted by the 6th District Court of Appeal in San Jose regarding the sale of 11 state-owned office buildings.

Schwarzenegger has called on the state Supreme Court (whose own building is included in the sale) to consider lifting the delay on the state-owned buildings.

By doing so, he is practically admitting that the deal is dead if it’s delayed into a Brown Administration.

Many observers believe that a similar fate is in store for the Fairgrounds deal.

“I certainly do hope it (the stay) kills the deal to sell the fairgrounds,” Correa said.

Attorney Wylie Aitken, who represented the elected officials and the OC Fairgrounds Preservation Society agreed that the delay would likely kill the deal saying, “time is on our side.”

Aitken (who is a member of Voice of OC’s board) said his purpose for joining the lawsuit was about more than just extolling the differences between competing business visions for the property.

“I don’t believe the sale of the fairgrounds is in the best interests of the taxpayers,” said Correa, who described the sales process between the state and Facilities Management West to as a “fire sale.”

Correa said he has personally pressed incoming Gov. Jerry Brown to avoid selling the fairgrounds. He added that he’ll soon be pressing for reforms on how the Fairgrounds in governed.

“This whole process,” Correa said, “has opened my eyes to the fact that we can do a much better job of maximizing profit margins on that property on behalf of the taxpayer.”

Thomas Gibbs, lead attorney for Facilities Management West, couldn’t speak to the real world impacts of a new administration, saying “I’m a lawyer not a politician.”

Gibbs said he was upbeat as he awaits his day before the appellate court next January, saying the last trial judge was right on when he decided “the sales process was open, fair and transparent and complied fully with the law.”

He would not comment on whether FMW would call on the state Supreme Court to decide the matter before the change in administrations.

State officials also withheld comment on whether they might appeal directly to the California Supreme Court, as they have in the sale of state buildings.

“The Department of General Services will review today’s order and determine in the coming days what action to take,” said spokesman Eric Lamoureux.

Please contact Norberto Santana, Jr. directly at nsantana@voiceofoc.orgAnd add your voice with a letter to the editor.

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