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'Our compensation causes a lot of heartburn': L.A. County Fair Assn. interim chief plans to review salaries

'Our compensation causes a lot of heartburn': L.A. County Fair Assn. interim chief plans to review salaries
James Henwood Jr., left, former president and CEO of the Los Angeles County Fair Assn., and J. Michael Ortiz, interim president. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The new interim head of the Los Angeles County Fair Assn., who takes over amid inquiries into lucrative executive pay, said Friday that one of his first tasks will be an "across the board" review of the salaries and bonuses.

At the same time, J. Michael Ortiz defended the $1-million-a-year package received by the man he replaced, James Henwood Jr.

Henwood resigned this week, saying he had become a "distraction."

The organization's finances have drawn scrutiny from county and state auditors after a Times investigation found Henwood and other executives received large salaries and bonuses even as the association reported financial losses for several years.

Ortiz said attacks on the association and Henwood were unwarranted.

"Our compensation causes a lot of heartburn," said Ortiz, the former president of Cal Poly Pomona. "I'm not exactly sure I agree with that. But we certainly will review how that's taking place, and what that means in terms of our future employment and how we manage our compensation from here on out."

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Ortiz said his salary as interim CEO had not been determined, and an association spokeswoman said it would be "significantly less" than Henwood's. The next chief executive, Ortiz said, will not face the same challenges Henwood did in expanding the fair organization's operations and thus will not be paid anything "close to what Mr. Henwood has earned."

Meanwhile, critics questioned whether Ortiz was the right person to either lead the organization temporarily or help select a permanent CEO because he approved Henwood's compensation as a longtime member of the board of directors.

U.S. Rep. Norma Torres (D-Pomona), whose district includes the taxpayer-owned fairgrounds, said in an email that the selection of Ortiz "makes me question the extent to which the association is willing to — or capable of — change."

"A change in leadership is not enough. Without greater oversight and accountability of the Fair Assn.'s management and operations, these problems will only persist."

Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez (D-Pomona) said the fair association should bring in outside leadership and consider shaking up its 11-member board.

"It's now an opportunity to reevaluate the whole board makeup of that association," he said.

In 2014, Henwood was paid $1,045,088 in total compensation, according to the association's federal tax returns. His overall pay has increased 90% since 2009, the last year the association was in the black, the tax records show. Figures for 2015 are not yet available.

Ortiz said Henwood, a former Orange County mall manager hired in 1995, had done a good job of developing the fairgrounds, known as the Fairplex. He noted that Henwood oversaw construction of a conference center at the property.

"I still am very supportive of Jim. I think that he showed a lot of what I would say was professionalism in how he addressed this," Ortiz said. "This is the first time — that I can recall, anyway — that an individual that has been successful in their job was actually assaulted for doing a good job, and receiving the compensation that he earned."

As for the salary review, Ortiz said it would include the pay of other executives. Total compensation for the four top managers who reported to Henwood — the chief financial officer and vice presidents for operations, sales and branding — ranged from about $313,000 to $455,000 in 2014. The fair organization reported a $3.44-million loss that year, its fifth straight in red ink.

The search for Henwood's permanent successor will take at least several months, said Ortiz, adding that he is not a candidate for the post.

He said he is looking forward to advancing the association's plans for a number of new attractions, dubbed Vision 2025. Among the possibilities are a brewery, a bakery, and a sports and entertainment center at the Fairplex.

Some neighbors of the fairgrounds said they were unhappy to see Ortiz lead the association.

"He's as much as part of the problem as Jim Henwood was," said Mario Ramos, 54, a resident who has criticized the fair organization for staging rave concerts. "There has to be a complete overhaul."

Lisa Gomez, 53, said the Los Angeles County government should operate the fairgrounds. The association now leases the property from the county and, in addition to hosting the annual fair, runs several year-round enterprises there.

"These people need to go," Gomez said.

Twitter: @ronlin

Twitter: @PringleLATimes

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