Activists: Fairgrounds deal unfair to public interest

COSTA MESA — Community activists who worked to preserve the Orange County Fairgrounds and supported the city's efforts to purchase the land now say they don't believe that Costa Mesa's deal with a real estate company to finance and operate the land is in the public's interest.

"We got started in the first place not only to have the public hold title, a piece of paper, we wanted openness and transparency and the community to be involved," said former Mayor Sandy Genis, president of the Orange County Fairgrounds Preservation Society. "It looks now like it's not going to occur."

Costa Mesa struck a deal with Facilities Management West that would allow the city to pay the $96 million it offered the state for the fairgrounds. The Newport Beach-based real estate company would operate the fairgrounds for the city.

Although Costa Mesa would hold the title, the city would not have day-to-day oversight of the fairgrounds' operations, something the preservation society isn't willing to accept.

"We have an outside authority that will meet once a year," Genis said. "We feel like the Fair Board is directly elected. At least every month you can go yell at them and the agenda is posted online."

The Fair Board is appointed by the governor, but meets primarily in public session as governors of a state special district.

Costa Mesa officials say the deal with Facilities Management is best, given the limited time the city had to reach a deal and that it couldn't afford paying $96 million without a private-sector partner.

Through the agreement with Facilities Management, the city would not be responsible for paying the mortgage.

But in exchange, Facilities Management is not obligated to take suggestions or direction from the city or the Orange County Fairgrounds Authority, which is the City Council.

The new fairgrounds authority would only meet once a year to discuss fairgrounds operations, a task Genis views as meaningless to taxpayers, saying, "If the JPA doesn't have any authority, you wonder why they would meet at all?"

Voter-approved Measure C requires that the 150-acre swath remain a fairgrounds and exposition center and that any future development or changes in use go before voters.

But a clause in state law could allow the fairgrounds authority to override Measure C, Genis said.

Section 65403 of the state government code allows special districts or joint-powers authorities to prepare capital improvement plans and carry them out without the approval of the local government's general or specific plans. In essence, if in the future the fairgrounds authority chooses to develop the land, even though its members are the same as the City Council, it legally has the authority to do so despite Measure C.

"The city of Costa Mesa said we had to have Measure C because we can't trust future city councils," Genis said. "Well, if we can't trust future city councils, I don't know that we can trust future JPAs."

That same section applies to the current fairgrounds district, said Chris Blank, an attorney who is not representing either side in the fairgrounds negotiations.

"The Fair Board is a special district," Blank said. "If the property remains owned by the state, and if they want to put hotels on all four corners, Measure C doesn't stop it from going forward."

The Fair Board on Monday voted to introduce a profit-sharing agreement with the state to keep the fairgrounds in its current ownership, despite a directive from the governor's office to sell the land to shore up the ailing state budget.

Guy Lemmon, a spokesman for Facilities Management, said he disagreed with the Fair Board's directive, believing it strays from the will of voters who overwhelmingly supported Measure C.

"I am thoroughly disappointed by the Fair Board's recent proposal because it ignores and rejects the community's ballot measure … they have stated in their plans to contravene Measure C," Lemmon said. "It's disrespectful to the public process."

— Staff writer Mike Reicher contributed to this report.

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