Patrons of the weekend swap meet held on the Orange County fairgrounds in Costa Mesa. Costa Mesa is in negotiations to buy the fairgrounds from the state. Credit: Violeta Vaqueiro

Thursday, June 9, 2010 | A state appellate court this week effectively ended former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bid to sell the Orange County Fairgrounds to a private company.

But the future of the 150-acre property in Costa Mesa remains uncertain, with a series of players maneuvering for control. And because of the last two years of battles in Orange County, the state’s entire system of fairs is up for review.

“I’m ready for the long haul,” said state Sen. Lou Correa, who was one of the major opponents of the sale.

Judges cited two main issues when they essentially invalidated the last-minute deal struck by Schwarzenegger and a private company, Facilities Management West.

The judges concluded that the deal ignored the wishes of the state Legislature, which asked the administration to present market valuations of the property. They also declared that the bidding process didn’t follow proper procedures, such as allowing for formal protests.

Wylie Aitken, an attorney in Orange County, represented a coalition of elected officials and activists who opposed the sale as an insiders deal. The group included Correa, state Assemblyman Jose Solorio, former Costa Mesa City Councilwoman Katrina Foley and the Orange County Fairgrounds Preservation Society.

Aitken said the decision “rightfully places public land where it belongs, in the hands of all Orange County and state residents.”

“We disagree with the appellate court’s decision,” said Facilities Management West principal Guy Lemmon. “We are weighing our options and considering an appeal. The sales process was open, fair and in full compliance with the law.”

Lemmon said the court’s decision would have dangerous ripple effects, including “a chilling effect on the governor’s plans to sell nonessential assets to address the current fiscal crisis.”

Aitken — a Voice of OC board member and co-counsel on the case with his daughter, Ashleigh Aitken — said the main impact of the lawsuit would be to discourage similar hurried “fire sales” of public property to politically connected interests.

Now that the lawsuit against the sale is settled, barring a Supreme Court review, opponents of the sale are asking Gov. Jerry Brown to permanently remove the property from the auction block. They are also refocusing their attention on the Fair Board and its top-level staff, arguing that they lit a fire that almost destroyed the Orange County Fair and now has prompted a questioning of all fairs.

“The Orange County Fair Board, which is responsible for managing the property, still includes members who conspired to put the property up for sale to begin with,” said Sandy Genis, president of the Fairgrounds Preservation Society. “We call upon the governor to appoint Fair Board directors committed to the public trust and to the preservation of our fairgrounds in public hands for all time.”

While few believe that Brown will follow Schwarzenegger’s lead for selling public assets, Brown has already proposed cutting fair subsidies across the state by half.

Though the Orange County Fair does not receive state subsidies, there will likely be pressure for more revenue.

Santa Ana Assemblyman Jose Solorio’s has proposed a revenue-sharing plan. His bill, which has cleared the Assembly and is now in the Senate, would have the larger fairs, such as Orange County’s, share revenue with the state and smaller fairs.

He said there are already discussions with other legislators to expand the bill to include other fairs across the state.

The Solorio legislation has already drawn opponents, such as Assemblyman Allan Mansoor, formerly mayor of Costa Mesa. Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, an opponent of the sale, may have changed tactics, given that she abstained on Solorio’s bill and has not returned calls seeking an explanation.

Correa, who would be the sponsor of the Solorio bill in the Senate, seemed unenthusiastic about the legislation, openly questioning whether the Orange County Fairgrounds needs any further tools.

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