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Will Orange County Fair officials rush to pre-approve contracts for next year’s annual firearms expos to get ahead of a potential state bill banning such events over public safety concerns? 

The fair’s Governor-appointed Board of Directors was supposed to tackle that question at a Monday special meeting which they convened on that topic.

Yet, after fair board members appeared stuck on the politics of drafting a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom opposing the bill — and amid legal warnings by a state Senator who termed their possible pre-approval of gun show contracts as an “intent to thwart public policy” — officials punted much of their special meeting’s contents to their next regular meeting on Sept. 23.

Without much discussion on the actual issue. 

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It comes as Newsom is expected at any moment to sign or veto Senate Bill 264, introduced by state Sen. Dave Min (D-Irvine), which originally set out to ban gun shows and sales at any state property but — as the bill progressed through the halls of the state Capitol — eventually morphed into a ban which solely targets the OC Fair. 

The bill would ban gun shows at the fairgrounds property in Costa Mesa, which are currently run by a promoter company known as Crossroads of the West Gun Shows. 

In turn, fair staff in a report attached to Monday’s Fair Board meeting said Crossroads has requested they pre-approve next year’s needed gun show contracts in an effort to secure their place at the fair before Min’s bill sets in on Jan. 1, 2022.

Min, citing a Sept. 11 Voice of OC story in a Monday letter he wrote to the Fair Board ahead of their meeting, warned board directors that they “would be acting with the specific intent to thwart public policy” if they voted to pre-approve gun show contracts prior to the state ban taking effect.

“I believe that any such ‘pre-approvals’ of contracts, undertaken immediately after the passage of SB 264 from the Legislature, would be void for opposing public policy,” Min wrote. 

Min also raised the possibility of legal action: 

“Let me be clear. Should the Board vote to approve Item 6B and ‘pre-approve’ a long-term contract with Crossroads of the West or any other gun show operator, I would explore litigation and legislation seeking to void these contracts. I also believe that any such action by the Board would potentially expose its members to personal liability, since they would be acting specifically with clear intent to subvert and evade the purpose of a statute they believed was likely to take effect, in opposition to clearly established public policy.”

Fair Board directors didn’t discuss that point, beyond brief references, Monday.

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They were instead bogged down by disagreement over the political nature of a letter the board initially drafted in seeking Newsom’s veto of the gun show ban. 

Supporters of the veto, such as Board Director Natalie Rubalcava-Garcia, said Min never consulted the Fair Board on the bill and that it takes away local control vested in the state board overseeing the county fairgrounds. 

Min “was invited to visit the gun show and he did, but we never had any discussion with him prior to that. He just decided to … bulldoze this through and basically take it out of our governing decision making,” said Rubalcava-Garcia during the meeting.

Josh Kaplan, the Assistant State Attorney General assigned to the fair board as its legal counsel, said California law would have supported the board’s ability to lobby against the bill during the legislative process. 

But, because the bill has already been passed by the legislature and now sits on Newsom’s desk, “I do not know that the board has the ability to advocate for a specific veto,” Kaplan said during Monday’s meeting.

He said a better, safer route now for the board would be to send a letter to Newsom merely apprising him of how the bill’s ban on gun shows may impact the OC Fair from a fiscal standpoint. 

The Crossroads gun shows have made about $6.7 million in total revenue at the OC Fair since 1996, according to official data provided by OC Fair spokesperson Terry Moore.

Kaplan’s guidance was more or less accepted by Fair Board directors, who agreed to revise their draft letter to Newsom to strictly talk about the economic impacts of Min’s bill.

“I think our only role at this point in time as a board is to advise the Governor of what the economic impacts would be and keep it very, very generic,” said Board Director Doug La Belle. 

He and Rubalcava-Garcia, at different points of the meeting, said it would at least put the 32nd District Agricultural Association (the official state designation for the OC Fair) on the record in the event it may request additional funding from the state to make up for lost revenue.

“I would like to see a letter that all of us can support, and if we can’t get to that point then I’m going to be a no on sending any communication to the governor,” La Belle said.

La Belle requested that, this time around, the fair’s legal counsel have the ability to review the letter beforehand, prior to any vote on Sept. 23. 

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Fair Board Director Ashleigh Aitken defended Min at the meeting, arguing it wasn’t entirely “fair” to characterize him in the board’s draft letter as someone who left the Fair Board out of the process.

She also took issue with one line in the draft letter to Newsom claiming the gun show provides economic support to the surrounding business community: “I don’t know that we can say that, and I don’t know if it makes the argument any stronger.”

Rubalcava-Garcia, who’s also the Orange County Business Council’s chief operating officer, said “we are an economic development driver and there are businesses in the surrounding area that benefit,” and defended the criticism of Min as outlining “the failure in the process.”

Board director Robert Ruiz, who is also the Secretary-Treasurer for Laborers Local 652, also supported leaving Min’s name in the letter.

Min, in his own letter to the board Monday, said that during the formative stages of developing the bill, “I was repeatedly advised by staff and Board members from the (OC Fair) that the Board was not a political entity and therefore could not respond to the preferences of the local community, no matter how strong those sentiments might be.”

“I was told that the Board’s role was simply that of a fiscal steward and that as long as gun shows were legal, no matter how much they might lead to harm in our community and no matter how strong the local opposition, the Board had a fiduciary duty to enter into contracts with the operators of these gun shows,” he added. 

He continued: “For the Board to take what is in effect a political position on this issue is not only contrary to these assertions, but would also seem clearly ultra vires of its stated mission and duties, as expressed in (state law) and in the California Department of Food and Agriculture Board of Directors Handbook.”

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Aitken, who’s running for Mayor of Anaheim, wanted it expressed inside the letter that she opposed the board majority’s move. 

Rubalcava-Garcia initially opposed tabling action around sending the letter to Newsom to the board’s Sept. 23 meeting, saying the bill “could be signed into law tomorrow or the day after.” Yet, it was what the board ultimately agreed to do.

In a report attached to Monday’s meeting, staff said Crossroads has “offered to consider eliminating” the exhibition of “precursor” gun parts used to make “ghost guns” — firearms assembled with parts or kits without traceable serial numbers — “from its 2022 shows if approved.”

That proposal apparently won’t be discussed until Sept. 23 as well.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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