Fair board tightens its ticket policy

Times Staff Writer

Warned repeatedly by the state to alter its practice of handing out free tickets to some of the summer’s hottest concerts, the Orange County Fair Board on Thursday adopted a more conservative policy that will limit each board member to 10 complimentary tickets for each of the concerts at the Pacific Amphitheatre.

For years, the board had allowed its members to take as many as 26 free tickets for each show at the county fairgrounds, a practice that resulted in board members doling out thousands of premium concert passes to political figures, business associates and friends.

At the same time, the summer concert series has struggled to post a profit. In three of the last five years, the concerts have lost money, state revenue reports show.

Under the modified policy, if board members want more than their allocated 10 tickets for a particular concert, they will be allowed to purchase up to six tickets at face value, the board decided. Ticket brokers often sell concert passes above the face price.


The revisions, approved during a board meeting, fulfilled promises by Fair Chief Executive Becky Bailey-Findley and board President Dale Dykema to scale back the freebies in the wake of state audits that found they might be an inappropriate use of public funds.

Since the Pacific Amphitheatre reopened for business at the fairgrounds in Costa Mesa in 2003, fair directors have taken thousands of premium tickets for the concert series, which has attracted headliners such as Bob Dylan, LeAnn Rimes and Ziggy Marley.

For the Rimes concert last July, for instance, fair directors took 247 free seats in the venue’s orchestra section, considered among the best spots in the house.

The biggest ticket-taker was Deborah Carona, the wife of indicted former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona. Over the last two years she used or gave away more than 1,100 tickets, many going to her husband, his political donors and members of the Sheriff’s Department. She occasionally exceeded her 26-ticket limit, receiving unused tickets from other directors. There are nine board members.

The free concert tickets are part of a larger group of courtesy passes distributed by the fair for an array of events, and not only to board members. For example, complimentary fair admission tickets are given to charity groups, neighborhood residents and others. The board arrived at the 26 figure through discussions with staff about how to generate community goodwill and attention, and promote the fair.

Under state guidelines, free passes for concerts, admission and other events cannot exceed 4% of gross fair proceeds from the preceding year.

In three annual audits starting in 2004, state regulators found the total number of courtesy tickets given away for all fair events was double or triple the state’s guideline. Representatives of the California Department of Food and Agriculture and state lawyers met earlier this year with fair officials after the Orange County Register published a story about the ticket policy.

The Orange County Fair was among five in California put on notice by the state for giving away too many free tickets. The others were San Diego, Ventura, San Luis Obispo and Fresno counties. The Los Angeles County Fair allows each director four free tickets, typically in the bleacher section.