Solorio won't block fairgrounds sale

Editor's note: This corrects an earlier version in which the first paragraph implied that state lawmakers would not block the sale of the Orange County Fairgrounds. In fact, only some lawmakers have said they would not block it.

A member of the Legislature's powerful Latino caucus said Wednesday that some state lawmakers do not intend on blocking the planned sale of the state-owned Orange County Fairgrounds to Costa Mesa based on the city's controversial stance on illegal immigration.

Assemblyman Jose Solorio (D-Santa Ana) of the Latino Legislative Caucus said that he and other lawmakers are disappointed that the City Council declared Costa Mesa a "Rule of Law" city, but want the best deal for taxpayers when it comes to the fairgrounds sale.

"I think we're at the stage that the city has worked in good faith with the state of California," Solorio said. "And at this point, I'm going to sit down with both the city and the state to learn about the agreement and make sure it's good for the residents of Orange County, and also good for the taxpayers of California, and find out if I could possibly help the city move forward with the proposal."

Solorio did not say if his fellow Latino Legislative Caucus members will take the same direction to help the city acquire the 150 acres near the Costa Mesa (55) and San Diego (405) freeways in Costa Mesa.

"I think that's a separate conversation, and I'm very displeased that the City Council took that action," Solorio said. "But as you know, I've been working for a long time on this Orange County issue, and I owe it to the residents of Orange County to look at the proposal and see if it makes sense for Orange County residents and the state of California."

Faced with intense opposition to the sale from countywide residents, Solorio and Assemblyman Van Tran (R-Westminster) in December co-sponsored a bill to reverse the sale. Assembly Bill 1590 would have rescinded a bill that authorized the sale of the fairgrounds last July.

California put the fairgrounds up for sale in October in an effort to shore up funds for its nearly $20-billion budget deficit. After dismissing public bids in March as too low, the state began negotiating a deal with Costa Mesa.

Last week, the state announced it had tentatively accepted Costa Mesa's $96-million offer after months of negotiations. In an effort to save taxpayers' money, the city reached a deal with Facilities Management West, a Newport Beach-based real estate company that plans to finance and operate the fairgrounds. Although Costa Mesa will not have much oversight over the day-to-day operations of the fairgrounds, the city will financially benefit from the deal.

Costa Mesa Councilwoman Katrina Foley commended Solorio for his position.

"I would expect nothing less from Jose, he's a reasonable guy," she said. "To me, this is a non-issue. There's more important things they are dealing with right now, like a major budget crisis. The issue is simply political grandstanding. Hopefully, everyone saw it for what it was and is going to be practical and pragmatic in terms of the fairgrounds."

Costa Mesa Councilwoman Wendy Leece, who voted in favor of the resolution, said she can now breathe a sigh of relief.

"I think that's great news and I greatly respect Assemblyman Solorio for making that decision," she said. "I greatly appreciate his more than a year long support and working with our city officials and the Legislature in Sacramento to get to this point, and I'm so thankful that we can continue to work together."

Tran said that while some of his colleagues are concerned about Costa Mesa's resolution, he does not believe they will oppose the sale of the fairgrounds.

"I know that a number of my legislative colleagues are concerned about the resolution, and there's just a difference of political opinion," he said. "But at the end of the day, what is important is the interest of the residents of Costa Mesa and that's being taken care of in terms of the sale."

In other fairgrounds-related business, an investigation by the California state auditor of improper activities by state employees found that an Orange County Fairgrounds employee was paid $1,206 for hours he did not work.

The whistleblower investigation found many other errors and misconduct by employees of various state agencies, including "misuse of state time and resources, improper gifts, and failure to report absences accurately."

The fairgrounds employee did not properly document 53 hours of absence time on four different occasions between November 2007 and June 2008. Furthermore, the employee's supervisor did not notice the error.

The report demanded that the fairgrounds' administration take immediate action, including taking corrective action against the employee, who was not identified.

Dena Heathman, fairgrounds senior vice president, finance and chief administration officer, said the employee in question does not have a regular work schedule, which led to documenting the hours improperly.

The employee's hours have been adjusted, and employees and supervisors have been retrained on how to document their hours of work and absence, she said.

"We wish it didn't happen and we wish we weren't in the report, but this gave us an opportunity to improve our process moving forward," Heathman said.

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