O.C. Fair employees learn of layoffs

COSTA MESA — The CEO and other year-round employees of the Orange County Fairgrounds were told Wednesday that they would be laid off by the state but would have chances to apply for their positions with the company planning to buy the O.C. Fair & Event center.

Eighty-one full-time and 20 to 30 part-time employees learned the news about 2 p.m., when officials from the California Department of Personnel Administration handed out 120-day layoff notices.

"I wouldn't use the term pink slips," said Lynelle Jolley, spokeswoman for the Personnel Administration. "Those are the pre-layoff notices that tell people that their jobs are potentially in jeopardy. Right now what we're operating under is a state process that requires them to get a 120-day notice before any layoffs can take effect."

The layoff notices are termed state restriction of appointments, Jolley said, adding that they give the employees first pick at available state jobs. The employees are guaranteed their jobs until April 1.

Fair President and Chief Executive Steve Beazley also received a letter.

Beazley said he is likely to be let go if the private firm, Newport Beach-based Facilities Management West, takes over the fairgrounds.

"It's one of the reasons I went to school, so I have as many choices as possible," he said. "I knew for quite some time that they may choose to pick someone else. I'm a wanderer, anyway."

Facilities Management executives also met with the employees and announced their "interest" in hiring the 81 full-time employees once the sale is finalized, according to a statement from the company.

Becky Bailey-Findley, former fairgrounds president and chief executive who once worked with Costa Mesa City Hall to help it craft a purchase of the 150-acre property from the state, would be retained to transition the fairgrounds into the new ownership, hire and train a permanent CEO.

"We wanted to end the uncertainty for the employees whose work we have admired, and share the great news that Becky will lead the team," Guy Lemmon, Facilities Management spokesman, said in the prepared statement. "We look forward to a collaborative effort to protect and enhance the already iconic OC Fair and all existing fairground activities. The employees will play a key role in the continued and future success of the fairgrounds."

David Ellis, Fair Board chairman, said a subcommittee was in discussions to sell the fairgrounds' personal and intellectual property.

Asked why the board hasn't voted on negotiations, Ellis said there's nothing to vote on yet.

Asked if the discussions will lead to dissolving the 32nd District Agricultural Assn., also known as the OC Fair & Event Center, Ellis would not provide a clear answer, saying discussions were still ongoing.

All of this, of course, hangs on the state's ability to sell the fairgrounds.

Finalizing the sale with the state has been stalled after a group of small businesses led by Jeff Teller, president of Tel Phil Enterprises, Inc., the company that runs the weekly swap meet, filed a lawsuit to stop the sale. An Orange County Superior Court judge placed a temporary restraining order prohibiting the state and Facilities Management from further discussions to finalize the sale.

A hearing is scheduled on Dec. 15.

One high-ranking fairgrounds employee familiar with the matter said the executive staff and the Fair Board knew about the pre-layoff notices weeks ago, but kept the rank-and-file staff in the dark.

"The bottom line is we don't trust them anymore," said the official, who requested anonymity. "We don't trust that they are looking after our best interest, or our families' best interest. This is going to be sad; it's right before the holidays. We've been told there's nothing to worry about, don't even pay attention to the media, don't talk to the media, and that we can get fired if we talk to the media."

Facilities Management might keep the employees until the summer annual fair because "they need us to run the fair, but then pull out the rug from underneath us," the official said.

Some employees would also be expected to seek other jobs with the state, partly because they may want to continue participating in California's pension systems.

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