Friday, August 26, 2011 | The Orange County Fair Board, under significant pressure from both the public and two new board members, agreed Thursday to discuss the establishment of a citizen transparency task force at its meeting next month.
The board’s acquiescence came after a raucous regular monthly meeting that began with the celebration of the 2011 Orange County Fair and climaxed with two board members being jeered by audience members as they left the meeting early.
For more than two years, activists with the Orange County Fair Preservation Society have fought against what they say has been a complete lack of transparency by the Fair Board as it attempted to privatize fair operations. Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown officially nixed a controversial proposal by the Newport Beach-based company Facilities Management West to purchase the 150-acre fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.
Brown also cut from the state budget more than $30 million in public subsidies to local fairs and established a statewide task force to examine operations of the state’s 78 county fairs.
The governor’s most significant moves affecting Orange County have been the appointments of two new Fair Board members, who share the desire for more transparency.
One of Brown’s new appointees — Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association — publicly called for the formation of a citizen task force to review fair operations almost immediately after being named to the board. He officially made the motion at Thursday’s meeting.
Berardino and the other new appointee — Gerardo Mouet, Santa Ana parks director — posed direct questions to the rest of the board and executive staff about how contracts are let.
One of their first questions: Why do board members approve rental and other agreements after CEO Steve Beazley has already signed them?
Other board members defended Beazley and the policy. “We have been successful, and we have the trust in our staff to make the right decisions,” said board member Gary Hayakawa.
Moet said, however, that such signing authority is odd.
“This is no reflection of trust at all. It really is an issue of transparency,” he said.
Berardino noted that Orange County, which manages a $6-billion budget, gives their CEO signing authority for only $50,000 contracts. Other cities, such as Santa Ana, allow only a $25,000 signing authority.
“When we look at our budget of $30 million plus, this is really well beyond the scope of what most agencies have. It’s way beyond it,” Berardino said.
Such contracting rules, which allow Beazley to sign contracts up to $300,000 without prior board approval, were at the heart of controversial contracts that involved the board’s efforts to sell the fairgrounds.
Nonetheless, the board Thursday approved a batch of presigned contracts on a 6-2 vote, with both Berardino and Mouet voting no.
The issue of contracts riled activists who attended the meeting. They denounced the process behind a secret contract with former state Sen. Dick Ackerman and county lobbyist Platinum Advisors.
Activists also pointed to other contracts for appraisals that were never finalized and for consultants that totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars but were never approved in public session.
Board Chairman David Ellis was visibly irritated by the questioning, especially by Berardino’s motion regarding the task force. Previously, Ellis had refused to place discussion of a task force on the agenda. He had told Berardino that he would have to earn it in debate in open session.
Parliamentary tactics were employed to stall the effort. Ellis called board members into closed session at the beginning of the meeting, even though a crowd was waiting to address the board. Then after emerging from closed session, Ellis announced that two board members, Ali Jahangiri and Doug La Belle, had to leave the meeting early.
This drew immediate protests from the crowd. Ellis first responded by saying that board members have “real lives.” And though he almost immediately apologized for the remark, the crowd and Berardino erupted.
“The fact is everybody has real lives,” Berardino said. “That is not only rude but it’s disrespectful. If you take an appointment to be on a public body, you owe it to the public that your private business doesn’t conflict with board meetings.”
Ellis responded, noting there were only 10 minutes before both La Belle and Jahangiri, both last-minute appointees by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, had to leave the meeting. “We can do public comment for about five minutes,” Ellis said.
Jahangiri got up and down from his seat at least four times while activists pressed to address the body.
When board lawyers relented and agreed that the public had a right to offer testimony on Berardino’s motion, activists accused the board of a host of illegal actions.
Sandy Genis, president of the Orange County Fairgrounds Preservation Society, told the board that the contracts to hire Ackerman were never approved in open session, even after the fact.
“The invoices [for Ackerman and others] were laundered,” she said. “When people asked for public records from this agency, they were lied to. We only got these through an obscure agency,” she said, referring to the California Construction Authority.
“This is something this board needs to investigate. These are just not legal,” Genis said.
Such comments from Genis and other activists led the board to vote unanimously to discuss a task force at the September board meeting.
Clarification: A previous version of this story did not fully explain the historical context when it comes to what is and what isn’t included in Fair Board members’ agenda packets.