Fair Board chairman rejects suggested audit and review committee

COSTA MESA — Orange County Fair Board Chairman David Ellis said Tuesday that he won't include a request on the board agenda next week to have an independent audit of the fair.

He also rejected a call to create a committee to review how the board handled the potential fair sale.

"All it does is become a distraction to our goal of providing the best fair in the country," he said. "It just delays the progress of the organization."

In an email to Ellis and Orange County Fair Chief Executive and President Steven Beazley on Aug. 5, recently appointed Fair Board member Nick Berardino requested the audit and formation of a committee to increase the organization's transparency and lift what he described as a cloud of suspicion that has hung over the fair since it was put up for sale in 2009.

Berardino, also general manager for the Orange County Employees Assn., said not including his requests on the agenda for public discussion was a blow against democracy.

"To stifle debate and to basically say we're not even going to allow a public official to put something on a public agenda because we're not going to allow you to talk about it flies in the face of everything our country stands for," he said. "It sounds like a little bit of hyperbole, but you know, it is what it is.

"It's somebody who was appointed to have a stewardship in the fairgrounds, and my feeling was, let's build a consensus and reduce suspicion and build trust so we can move forward."

Since then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger put the fairgrounds up for sale in 2009 to help plug a budget deficit, some in the public and many fair vendors have cast a suspicious eye on the board's handling of the sale. The board hired a former state lawmaker to monitor how Sacramento proceeded, but critics argued he was hired to lobby for the sale.

When a majority of the board formed a nonprofit to buy the 150-acre property in Costa Mesa, they were accused of aiming to develop the grounds for private gain.

An Orange County district attorney investigation cleared the board of any wrongdoing, though it did chastise the board for creating the appearance of secrecy.

But when combining that lack of misconduct and the board satisfying more than 40 public record requests in the last three years, Ellis says the board has done enough to clear its reputation.

"I suggest that it's not a lack of information — some folks simply don't like what they're reading," Ellis said in an email to Berardino on Monday.

The state annually audits the fair too, Ellis argued.

Berardino suggested the committee review of the fair sale should include residents and the fair's stakeholders, including members of the equestrian center and the weekend swap meets.

But neither group is impartial, Ellis argued in the email to Berardino.

"I do not support providing a platform for a struggling tenant that is only motivated by self-interest, not the growth of the fairgrounds business or community-based support programs," Ellis wrote. "They should spend more time re-tooling their broken business model, not complaining about the board for their struggles."

Ellis also criticized Berardino's habit of debating issues in the media, calling it immature and amateur.

"You know, there are two things they need to understand: One, that I'm going to continue my quest for the truth, and two: I'm going to embrace the media as partners in that quest," Berardino said. "Actions speak louder than words. And the action to silence debate on this kind of issue speaks volumes."

If Berardino wants to push for a fair audit and creating a committee, he will have to make a motion at the Aug. 25 meeting and have the support of the Fair Board majority.

"Make him work for it," Ellis said.

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