Mayor calls for investigation of new Fair Board member

COSTA MESA — Just three months ago, the Orange County Employees Assn. applauded a California government watchdog group that suggested Mayor Gary Monahan and another council member violated the state’s open-meeting law by sitting on a two-member budget committee behind closed doors.

Last week, Monahan returned the favor by calling for county prosecutors to investigate OCEA General Manager Nick Berardino in his new role as a member of the O.C. Fair Board because, in his view, Berardino is not conducting the public’s business in public.

But it remained unclear Wednesday whether a letter — penned by Berardino and sent to other members of the Fair Board — that called for an audit actually violates the state’s opening-meetings law. The state owns the fairgrounds.

An earlier version incorrectly stated that Berardino may have violated the Brown Act by sending a letter to other Fair Board members.

“All we hear from these guys is, ‘transparency, transparency, transparency,’” Monahan said. “How many times has the union complained that we’re violating the Brown Act? Then Nick goes out there and throws this thing out that, I think, is an obvious violation.”

In an Aug. 4 letter to the Orange County Fair Board, Berardino requested that board Chairman David Ellis put a request for an independent audit of the fair and the creation of a committee to review the potential fair sale on the agenda and laid out his arguments for it.

By contacting everyone on the board, the union chief could have broke laws that require the public’s business be conducted in public, the mayor said,

“This distribution is a clear violation … " Monahan wrote to the Orange County district attorney’s office Aug. 10.

However, Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, a Carmichael-based government watchdog group, said on its face the letter wasn’t a violation.

“A unilateral communication by any one member of a local board or council is not in itself a violation,” he said. “Not one communication to all. You’d have to have a majority of the body involved in some sort of communication.”

The Orange County district attorney’s office said it would look into the matter, but had no opinion at this point, a representative said.

Ellis said the Fair Board was happy to work with the D.A., if needed.

“We have always been an open book,” Ellis said. “We have always cooperated with the D.A. in any investigation, and this will be no different.”

So is this tit-for-tat from Monahan?

“Part of the motivation is exactly that,” the mayor acknowledged. " … He’s now a public official, and he has to follow the same rules as other public officials.”

Berardino brushed off the allegation. The OCEA and the Costa Mesa City Council have been butting heads since the city approved possibly outsourcing nearly half the city jobs to public or private groups.

"[Monahan] has obviously been subject to a great deal of criticism by [the OCEA] and he too is going to do what he can to keep me away from the truth and publicizing it,” Berardino said. “But I’m not backing up … those who don’t want the community to hear what took place, they’re in for a long struggle. It’s not going to silence me.”

Berardino was appointed to the Fair Board earlier this year by Gov. Jerry Brown. His first board meeting is scheduled for next week.