Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered the truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America.

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The latest controversy at the OC Fair and Event Center in Costa Mesa, over the raucous debut of a proposal to shelve a seven-acre, longtime community equestrian center on the fairgrounds in favor of RV parking, has triggered a much more fundamental, longstanding and never-answered question about the OC Fairgrounds.

Who runs this place?

Almost a decade ago, just as Voice of OC was launching, one of our first investigations was into the failed effort to privatize the 150-acre fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, right next to the 55 and 405 Freeway interchanges.

Throughout our coverage of that entire public fistfight, which raged to the very last hours of the Schwarzenegger Administration on New Years Day 2011, fundamental questions arose in court over who really owned the fairgrounds and thus who really runs it.

Is the property, a former WWII Army Base, a piece of real estate to be used to it’s fullest potential in the private market?

Or is the property, purchased by a local group of the first fair board members after the war, a community asset, something to be leveraged to offer the most public access and enjoyment?

Now, the battle in 2009, over potential development of the property pitted a series of special interests against each other including the Governor, the Legislature, the local fair board, the City of Costa Mesa, the County of Orange, Fair Vendors and the Fair industry itself.

With this much potential profit in play, the political knife fight was intense.

Yet the most interesting aspect of this battle – which was never finalized after a series of sale-related lawsuits were settled – was just who owns title over the actual property.

Again. Who really runs this place?

It was never clear whether it was the state, the legislature, the 32 District Agricultural Association (the formal name of OCFEC) or the local fair board members.

To me, one thing became very clear through the whole process of watching the proposed sale of the fairgrounds. It’s the vendors and the statewide fair industry that largely drives what happens at our fairs.

Think about it.

Why should Orange County residents have to pay $8 to park at the OC Fairgrounds for events?

Parking Rate Sign at the OC Fairgrounds Credit: Norberto Santana Jr.

Why do we ask local, working class families to pay huge sums for unhealthy, overpriced food and basic, old-school rides?

Food Vendor Booth at the OC Fairgrounds Credit: Norberto Santana Jr.

Is that the best way to run our fairgrounds as opposed to using the property – which is already paid for – for ongoing, subsidized community events and uses, like horse riding?

In the 21st Century, is the Orange County Fairgrounds there to be geared toward a month-long event that monetizes as opposed to lots of community events year-round that are free?

In retrospect, proposed changes to the equestrian center back in 2003 and 2009 were among the first signals that some sort of play by special interests was being made for the future of the property.

Equestrian activists went on to become many of the strongest supporters of the petition drive to keep the fairgrounds public and in many ways, saved the whole property.

Then last month, they saw themselves penciled out of the future.

Oddly enough, there’s a lot of confusion about who ordered OC Fair and Event Center consultants to write the equestrians out of the future master use plan. OCFEC Officials say the current plan is nothing more than a draft.

But first drafts often say a lot.

Consider that fair board members, virtually all appointed after the Schwarzenegger Administration, have said publicly they had no idea that the equestrians were being downsized to a small plot near the Centennial Farms exhibit on site.

You would think that some sort of top staff official would tell a public board member they are about to step on a PR landmine.

Next, examine the $20 million price tag consultants put together to remake the equestrian center.

It’s a Tell – and whether it’s poker, boxing or politics – they always advertise the coming attractions.

The $20 million price tag for some basic public stables took everyone by surprise but when you start diving into the specific numbers you’ll see that they are super-inflated.

It’s almost like there was an internal message to these consultants – price out the equestrian center.

Now, from what I hear, OC Fair Board members weren’t too happy with top staff (again, virtually all changed out from previous privatization-friendly administrations) – and they put an item on next month’s agenda ordering a performance audit of the whole place.

That’s exactly what needs to happen here.

A performance auditor is a great accountability tool – one that worked so well at the County of Orange that county supervisors, irritated over findings, left the position empty but have never dared delete it.

When you have phantom government offering directions to consultants, you need to check under the hood immediately.

The British Rock band, The Who, had a great lyric about these kinds of situations.

“Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”

They answered their own query with a cool title.

Won’t Get Fooled Again.

Will we?

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