Fair Board adds transparency to failed-sale investigation

The Orange County Fair Board voted Thursday to waive the attorney-client privilege it had with the state attorney general's office, a move that's expected to aid investigators reexamining the failed sale of the fairgrounds property.

Six of nine board members voted in favor of the motion, with Joyce Tucker and Kristina Dodge recusing themselves and Dave Ellis absent.

Tucker and Dodge were on the Fair Board during the attempt to sell the 150-acre property in Costa Mesa, which began in 2009 as part of a statewide effort by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to offload public lands to help the state's ailing budget. The sale ended by summer 2011 under Gov. Jerry Brown. It had been met with stiff opposition, public debate and legal challenges.

The Orange County district attorney's office requested last month that the Fair Board waive the privilege, which keeps certain communications private. The district attorney's office declined to comment about its investigation or the Fair Board's decision.

"There is no information we can give at this time," said chief of staff Susan Kang Schroeder.

The board's motion also specified the opening up of communications related to the attempted fairgrounds sale.

The state attorney general's office represented the state-owned fairgrounds until late 2009, when it abruptly dropped the agency as a client to avoid a conflict of interest amid the sale attempt. The property now retains private counsel, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, but for a considerably higher cost — to the ire of some critics.

Allegations and questions about the sale have lingered, Fair Board member Ali Jahangiri said.

"It's been taking up a lot of our time," he said. "I would say there's nothing to hide. Expose what we have to expose. Let's finally solve this and move on."

He compared the ordeal to "a witch hunt, and you can't find the witch."

The Fair Sale Review Committee, an independent group tasked by the Fair Board with examining the failed sale, earlier this year condemned the saga. The group issued a series of recommendations, among them more overall transparency throughout the organization.

Fairgrounds activist Theresa Sears, who served on the committee, agreed with the board's decision but took offense at Jahangiri's "witch hunt" remark. The group was aided by the professional experience of its chairman, Mike McCrary, former police chief for Los Alamitos, she said.

"This is about accountability and transparency for a public agency," Sears said.

Board member Nick Berardino, who urged the creation of the review committee, said the board's move would allow one law enforcement agency to speak with another about a continued investigation.

"I would not characterize it as a witch hunt," he said. "I would characterize it as a journey to the truth. This is another step in that journey."


Construction delay, fair dates

In other fairgrounds news, officials announced that the Pacific Amphitheatre renovation is about 30 to 40 days behind schedule.

Construction crews were having trouble with the retaining walls near the new lobby, which, once complete, will act as a second entrance plaza for the outdoor concert venue.

Gary Hardesty, chief technology and production officer, described the delay as a "design problem." He said he could not immediately estimate what additional costs might have been incurred because of the delay.

Earlier this year, crews excavated much of the amphitheater's outer dirt berm, which freed up nearly three acres and made room for the new lobby and plaza. The changes are expected to better connect the venue to the summertime fair.

Officials also announced the official dates for the 2014 Orange County Fair: July 11 through Aug. 10.

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