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Orange County Fair officials are facing criticism for trying to charge people more for tickets while spending hundreds of thousands of public dollars on exclusive, special dinners for top officials and their families.

Public records show the state-run OC Fair and Events Center has spent at least $309,000 over the last four annual fairs on a tradition where board members receive free, private dinners over the fair’s 23-day period, complete with concierge services and private restrooms.

The exclusive nights of short ribs and tri-tip — as detailed in one 2018 dinner menu — have sparked criticism by local watchdogs who say the burden shouldn’t be on the public to grapple with the agency’s financial concerns, while Fair Board members spend public money on perks and sit on approximately $55 million in financial reserves.

Such benefits for fair officials “smack of the kind of elitism that isn’t appropriate for the fairgrounds,” said Vincent Pollmeier, a resident who closely observes the Fair Board, in an interview Tuesday. “These people are supposed to have been appointed to protect the public benefit.”

“Other than the fact that it’s a huge ego boost to board members, are these special dinners really giving the people of California value for their dollar?” said Pollmeier, director of the Friends and Neighbors of the Orange County Fairgrounds. He added the agency shouldn’t “at this point even consider raising prices” until it’s taken a thorough look at its spending.

The Fair Board’s chair, Sandra Cervantes, declined to comment on the dinners, referring all questions to the fair agency’s staff.

Fair officials call the meals “Business Development Dinners,” and defend them as key for building relationships with vendors and others who do business with the fair.

“The purpose of business development dinners during the annual OC Fair is to develop new business relationships and strengthen existing partnerships with organizations that work with us to host our year-round events program and the fair,” said the fairgrounds’ CEO, Michele Richards, in an emailed statement to Voice of OC.

Asked if officials would consider cutting down on spending for the special dinner events, Richards said, “We are always looking for cost containment wherever it may come from.”

Fair officials plan to continue the special dinners during the fair season this summer.

This year, staff have budgeted $61,500 for catering the dinners, according to the fair agency’s communications director, Terry Moore.  The agency also plans to spend $7,800 for the concierge and $13,000 for the private restroom.

From the 2016 fair all the way through the 2019 fair, the agency spent a total of $309,000 for the dinners’ catering, concierge services and private restrooms, though fair staff on Tuesday couldn’t provide information on the amount spent on the private restrooms for the 2016 dinners.

The format for each dinner typically includes staff and board members introducing invited guests, followed by a buffet dinner, Richards said.

“Board members and their immediate families do not pay for dinner but they pay for any other guests,” Moore said.

Earlier this month, Fair Board members considered a number of different options for raising ticket prices — including a $1 increase, from $12 to $13, and a $2 increase, from $12 to $14 on the weekdays — but backed off in the face of criticism at their Jan. 16 meeting. They did raise parking prices year-round by a dollar, from $9 to $10.

Staff estimated the ticket price increases would bring in between $220,000 and $436,000 in additional revenue, depending on which price increase the board selected.

They haven’t ruled out increasing the ticket prices in future years as a way of dealing with rising costs to operate the fair, which staff have voiced concern over since December.

Staff said the fair’s labor costs are expected to be about $1.8 million more this year than last year. Many board members voiced concern about the fair’s financial future during their Jan. 16 meeting , with directors like Natalie Rubalcava-Garcia calling the ticket price increases “inevitable.”

Residents noted the fairgrounds’ sizable financial reserves while questioning the proposed price increases.

“A fair that has $55 million in the bank and is supposed to be there for the community should not raise admission prices,” said Jeanine Robbins, an Anaheim resident and Fair Board observer, who operates a cigar shop with her husband Mike Robbins at the fairgrounds’ weekend swap meet.

“Their priority is to make sure the public can attend, and if that takes cutting back on the perks for the fair board members, then that needs to be done,” Robbins said.

Pollmeier said there are other examples of wasteful spending by the agency that staff need to deal with, like a program last year in which fair board members were given concession vouchers worth up to $250 each.

As part of the program, board members would try different concessions, and provide feedback on the food or concessions they tried, according to an official information packet.

“Should we be getting comments just from board and staff members?” Pollmeier said. “We should be giving them to customers at random. You’re getting a biased view. I don’t see a board member turning in a bad review on free fair food.”

The same information packet also details instructions for board members for getting special access to concerts and other special events at the fairgrounds’ Pacific Amphitheater venue.

Pointing to the agency’s reserves, Pollmeier said, “we’ve amassed this $55 million war chest, and now we’re considering price increases. Because god forbid we should tap into any of the resources we made off the public in the past.”

Staff writer Spencer Custodio contributed reporting.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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