Brown appoints O.C. labor leader to Fair Board

COSTA MESA — Gov. Jerry Brown has appointed a labor leader embroiled in Costa Mesa's recent political conflicts to the board of directors that oversees the Orange County Fairgrounds.

Nick Berardino, 62, general manager of the Orange County Employees Assn., will join the nine-member Fair Board, the governor's office announced Thursday.

The move elevates Berardino's stature as he is locked in an ideological battle with a Republican Costa Mesa council majority that has challenged the city's employee unions on pensions and pay.

Brown, a Democrat, has appointed a political ally to a position that his Republican predecessor essentially discarded. Until a court squashed a pending sale of the fairgrounds in early June, the state was going to dispose of the 150-acre Costa Mesa property to a private company.

"I think it's time to really dig very, very deep and get all the facts [about the sale discussions]," said Berardino. "We need to have extraordinary transparency in government."

State Sen. Jose Solorio (D-Anaheim) issued a statement saying he was looking forward to working with Berardino and "making sure we keep the OC fairgrounds in public hands."

Berardino is well-known for his opposition to the Costa Mesa City Council majority's plans to outsource many of the city jobs done by his union employees. The head of that effort, Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer, has advocated for local control of the fairgrounds, instead of state oversight.

The fairgrounds is governed by a state body called the 32nd District Agricultural Assn. Its directors serve terms of four years, and can serve more than one term if reappointed.

In January, two of the positions expired: Mary Young, a real estate owner and Republican activist; and Alexander Vellandi, owner of a South County real estate brokerage. Both were appointed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Some of the other members are from the business and financial worlds, while two are ex-public employees, according to the board website.

Fair Board chairman David Ellis sought to downplay any political implications.

"It's a very collegial, harmonious group, and I don't see it changing," he said, adding that the vast majority of votes are unanimous. "He'll be a great addition."

Since 1978, Berardino has worked in various capacities at the OCEA and has been general manager since 2004. According to the association, he is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam.

Besides transparency, Berardino said one of his goals was to ensure "underprivileged and underserved families" can afford programs at the fair.

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