The Orange County Fair Board this week formally called on state Attorney General Kamala D. Harris to resume legal representation of the board nearly three years after the attorney general’s office dropped the board as a client because of conflict of interest concerns.
The Fair Board, which has been remade in recent months by Gov. Jerry Brown, is also moving to establish a citizens oversight committee. Activists who want the property to remain in public hands continue to protest what they say is a lack of disclosure by fairground CEO Steve Beazley of documents regarding the years-long attempt to sell the fairground.
In 2009, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was trying to sell some of the state’s most iconic properties, including the 150-acre fairground in Costa Mesa. Brown, then attorney general, took the unprecedented step of refusing to represent the Fair Board after his office learned of a scheme by its Republican majority to privatize the property.
The privatization effort ultimately failed, and Brown, who had been elected governor, announced last year that he would not sell the property. He then began remaking the board with his own appointees.
Since late last year, Brown has added Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association; Gerardo Mouet, executive director of Santa Ana parks, recreation and community services; retired businessman Stan Tkaczyk; and attorney Ashleigh Aitken. The only members remaining from the group that initiated sale of the fairgrounds are board President Joyce Tucker, David Ellis and Kristina Dodge.
This week, the new appointees reacted to the tripling of Fair Board legal bills to more than $600,000 since it hired the private firm of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips to take over for the attorney general.
Beazley, meanwhile, advocated that the Board keep the private firm, saying that the state’s top lawmaker did not fire the board as a client but gave Fair Board members an “authorization” to seek private legal counsel.
That interpretation prompted one board member, Schwarzenegger appointee Ali Jahangiri, to suggest that the private-lawyer option offered more flexibility.
“I think we get a lot better service than we would if we had a public agency,” Jahangiri said.
Tkaczyk (who is a Voice of OC board member) questioned why the attorney general left in the first place, adding that the state’s public lawyer is half as expensive as the private lawyers of recent years.
“If they’re not going to come back, we want to know why,” Tkaczyk said.
The activists were not shy in stating why they think the attorney general is staying away. “There were potential criminal issues … where the AG may have to come in and prosecute people,” said former Fountain Valley Mayor Gus Ayer.
Beazley would not comment on why the attorney general left, but a Dec. 1, 2009, memo from Chief Assistant Attorney General Matthew Rodriquez stated the reason.
“Given the seemingly intertwined and potentially conflicting interests of the [Fair] District, the District Board members and the nonprofit, we have determined that we should withdraw from providing legal services,” wrote Rodriquez, adding they would remain on the sidelines until all issues with the sale of the fairground were resolved.
The attorney general’s office has remained silent on the issue.
“It is not appropriate for us to comment on the scope of our office’s representation of the 32nd DAA [District Agricultural Association],” said Lynda Gledhill, spokeswoman for the attorney general, in a 2011 Voice of OC article on the issue. “We have been closely monitoring the situation and continue to do so.”
The lingering questions about the board’s activities during the attempted sale also derailed approval of a renewed parking development contract with LSA Associates, the same contract that was used to hire former state Sen. Dick Ackerman. The FPCC is investigating Ackerman regarding potentially illegal lobbying.
Tkaczyk questioned why LSA Associates should be retained for a new parking study when negotiations with nearby school districts could effectively address parking issues.
Activists also raised questions about whether the board should continue to contract with the company that billed more than $150,000 under the parking contract to enable what activitists say was secret lobbying.
“It’s very clear, LSA has not been working on behalf of the public,” said activist Theresa Sears. “They have been conspiring with some individuals, and their actions have been unprofessional.”
The parking lot contract was tabled. Officials with LSA Associates left the meeting early without making any public comments.
Beazley announced his resignation earlier this year. Activists criticized the current Fair Board majority for attempting to direct the appointment as successor to Jerome Hoban, who is Beazley’s second in command.
The board previously announced that it expects to select a new CEO by March 26 .