The state attorney general’s office is rescinding its recent agreement to once again represent the Orange County Fair Board.
The reason: The board decided to reopen the history of the effort to privatize the Orange County Fairgrounds.
The attorney general acts as attorney to almost all state agencies, but stopped representing the Fair Board in 2009 to avoid a conflict of interest.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this report stated that Fair Board member Nick Berardino took office with the idea of having the attorney general return as the board’s counsel. While he supports the idea, it wasn’t formally proposed at the time.
At the time, several board members were in the process of forming a nonprofit to buy the fairgrounds if the state put it up for sale. The attorney general wanted to avoid representing parties that could be on both sides of a negotiating table; the Orange County district attorney later concluded that the arrangement was legal.
When Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Assn., joined the board last year, proposed forming a committee to get to the bottom of all the fair sale dealings.
Last month, a Fair Board steadily moving more in Berardino’s direction finally approved his idea for the Fair Sale Review Committee.
In an April 17 letter to board Chairwoman Joyce Tucker, Chief Assistant Attorney General Mark J. Breckler wrote: “On March 29, 2012, based on our understanding that all [fairgrounds sale] issues have been resolved, we agreed to resume legal representation” of the board. “We have recently learned that all of the issues relating to the proposed sale of the … fairgrounds have not been resolved. Therefore, we are rescinding our March 29, 2012 letter ... “
Tucker said that she had notified the attorney general’s office of the committee because “they didn’t know there was an ongoing investigation.”
The committee is designed to have a majority that has a financial interest in the fairgrounds — “stakeholders,” Berardino called them.
“They all have an interest in not seeing it sold,” Berardino acknowledged. “But I think it demonstrates the quality of the attorney general, who is showing deference to the citizens who are about to look into the sale situation and waiting to see what they come up with.”
That would be an illegal conflict of interest if the committee had any decision-making authority, according to a guide published by the state attorney general’s office.
State law prohibits parties that are “financially interested in the outcome of specified proceedings” from serving on boards that oversee them, but allows “a body that solely prepares a report for submission to another body” to include such stakeholders.
These include two representatives each from the Orange County Fair Preservation Society, the Orange County Fairgrounds Equestrian Center, Orange County Market Place vendors, neighboring homeowners, the fairgrounds employee bargaining unit, plus a single member from the Orange County Business Council and the Costa Mesa Chamber of Commerce, and two members to be determined.
Most of those groups have a financial interest in the property. More than half of the horses at the Equestrian Center are kept by trainers and traders, not recreational users.
The Market Place vendors and fairgrounds employees likewise make their living off the property.
The Preservation Society is suing the Fair Board, is backed financially by Market Place owner Jeff Teller and was represented during the fair sale lawsuit by new board member Ashleigh Aitken.
Even the homeowners groups have a tiny financial stake: They get dollar tickets to the Orange County Fair.
The Orange County Business Council doesn’t have any conflict, but it doesn’t want to take part in the committee because it’s stacked one way, said Tucker, who voted for the creation of the committee.
“We’re having some difficulties getting some neutral people,” she said. “They only wanted two people that were independent and unbias … not involved in anything.”
The equestrians and the Market Place owners, in particular, are at odds with board member David Ellis, who favored the sale.
Ellis has tried to evict Teller over the Market Place’s declining revenues and has questioned why the public should financially support the private businesses at the Equestrian Center.
Tucker said that those groups will be biased.
“We call it the witch hunt committee,” Tucker said. “I would want somebody to go in there with an open mind, to look at it as it is, not as you think it is, not trying to nail somebody.”
Sandy Genis of the Preservation Society said the committee can address concerns about bias by establishing “factually, what happened. How can we move forward and make sure we never put the fairgrounds at risk again? Are there any safeguards we can put in place? I don’t want to put somebody’s head on a platter, because I’m not real interested in that.”
Genis said that while much of the history is known, she’d still like to know why certain consultants had their contracts go through middlemen.
“Is this something they commonly do, or were they aberrations?” she asked.
The Fair Board is set to make the appointments to the review committee at its meeting Thursday morning.