The Orange County Fair Board’s legal bills have skyrocketed ever since the state Attorney General quit representing the board in 2009, citing conflict of interest issues among board members.
But the more expensive lawyers haven’t improved the board’s questionable compliance with the state’s transparency laws.
In 2009, when a deputy attorney general advised the fair board on issues and sat with them through monthly meetings, their total bill reached $57,889, according to official records.
Last month, fair board officials added another $100,000 to the current year contract with the firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, bringing the total bill for legal services in 2010-2011 up to $300,000. The cap for next year is $400,000, according to the records.
Steve Beazley, president and CEO for the OC Fair and Event Center (which administers the fairgrounds) did not return a call seeking comment on the rationale for the spike in legal billing or questionable compliance with the state’s open meetings laws.
At last month’s meeting, fair officials drew the ire of activists when they met in closed session to discuss their opposition to the purchase proposal being pursued by Facilities Management West. While fair board members issued a statement opposing the sale after closed session, the issue was never listed on the agenda.
Fair board members also seem on track to violate the state’s open meeting laws again later this month at their regular meeting.
At the Feb. 24 meeting, fair board members will meet in closed session to “confer with legal counsel on existing litigation in the matter of Advanced Real Estate Services, Inc. el al. v. Department of General Services.”
That kind of public noticing, says Voice of OC’s open government consultant, is not legal.
“The purpose of the closed session exception for litigation is simply to confer with the body’s own legal counsel on the prospects or progress of the litigation. And that means it’s own litigation,” said Terry Francke, who also is executive director for the statewide watchdog group, CalAware.
“It’s not for a secret progress report on somebody else’s case,” Francke said.
The only legal way the fair board could meet in closed session to discuss the ongoing lawsuit would be to consider joining it. Then it would have to be listed publicly as “pending” or “potential” litigation.
— NORBERTO SANTANA, JR.