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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Recent state fire and safety inspections found a series of problems at the Orange County Fair and Event center, prompting questions about whether the fairgrounds is ready for the millions of people who will walk through the 150-acre tract in the midst of Costa Mesa later this month for the annual summer fair.

Longtime fairgrounds activist, Reggie Mundekis, is ringing alarm bells after unearthing the fire and safety inspections and documents that make her question whether all the outstanding issues can be addressed in time for the fair.

Mundekis, who plans on publicly raising questions about the inspections at this morning’s public board meeting of the OC Fair and Event Center, wants officials to explain how we got here – especially when the fairgrounds currently sits on $47 million in cash reserves.

“It’s not clear if having the OC Fair go on this year with so many safety problems being unaddressed is a smart thing,” she told me.

“Fairgrounds executive management has viewed safety as a negotiable line item and continues to do so in their handling of the issues identified in the recent safety inspections. It’s only a matter of time before someone is killed or severely injured at the Fairgrounds under the current management team.

“Do you want to be in a crowd at a place that sees safety as a negotiable line item?” she asks.

A series of public documents I reviewed do show that state inspections have indeed repeatedly found a series of trip and fall hazards all over the property, uncovered electrical panels at the Pac Amphitheatre, a lack of fire sprinkler maintenance, incorrect and inadequate portable fire extinguishers, problems with use of extension cords and electrical outlets, unpermitted tent structures and improper combustible tank storage among other issues.

After reviewing the documents, I reached out to fairgrounds spokeswoman Terry Moore, who looked into the issue and got right back to me.

“The reports are the result of inspections conducted by the California State Fire Marshal as part of regular facility checks across the property,” Moore told me.

“OC Fair & Event Center staff is working through the items identified in the reports and the work is currently 95% complete.”

Moore said, “the OC Fair is safe for fairgoers – if that were not the case, the fire marshal would shut us down,” adding “OC Fair & Event Center is a large property that is used every day of the year and we welcome and appreciate Cal Fire’s help in identifying any issues that need to be addressed to provide a safe environment for our guests, vendors and employees.”

Moore wasn’t able to respond to the conclusions of a March pre-fair risk management inspection report by the California Fair Services Authority that also found a series of systemic trip and fall hazards as well as fire safety issues at the fairgrounds.

That report also highlighted a serious safety issue at the Equestrian Center regarding a “muck pit” dumpster enclosure, which is basically a plank over two giant dumpsters with fabricated guard rails that aren’t engineered adequately, according to an inspector’s report.

Earlier this year, OC fair officials themselves called out the fire marshall to re-inspect the equestrian facilities – a review that found serious issues requiring certain buildings to be temporarily shut down.

Many equestrian activists felt the re-inspection was a direct result of their questioning fair executive staff over a Master Site plan update that advocated removing equestrian facilities.

There is an ongoing debate over the future of equestrian facilities at the fairgrounds.

Fair board members last month took a public vote to table any discussions about removing the equestrian center.

Yet the episode has stirred up a lot of bad blood – as nasty as during the 2009 privatization battle over the OC fairgrounds with the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

During those battles, local activists – often times equestrians – really clashed with fair executive staff, often accusing them of trying to work the property to pad their own compensation packages as opposed to offering services to Orange County residents.

These recent fire and safety inspections seem to indicate that many of the same issues remain over the maintenance of the buildings and property at the fairgrounds.

“Questions need to be asked and staff need to be held accountable regarding the condition of the property,” Mundekis said.

“Staff claim in the Master Site Plan that multiple buildings, including possibly historic buildings and the Equestrian Center, are in such poor condition that the buildings need to be demolished. The same staff, which have worked at the Fairgrounds for years, have not brought up the poor condition of these buildings in the budget process to get money to fix the buildings. It’s time to ask if staff is allowing facilities to run down to justify building new facilities.”

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