The Orange County Fair Board agreed Thursday to formally oppose a bill that activists warned could lead to privatization of the publicly owned fairgrounds.
Theresa Sears and Reggie Mundekis of the Orange County Fair Preservation Society alleged that Senate Bill 741, while seeming to address the funding problems of California's network of 52 fairs, actually provides no definition of what a fairgrounds is or what constitutes a fair.
According to documents they presented to the board, those flaws and more could represent the first steps toward the "dismantling" of California's fair system, which operates on state-owned lands. The bill, introduced by Sen. Anthony Cannella (R-Salinas), would allow the public real estate "to be handed to private developers without proper public input or oversight," they wrote.
The unanimous vote from five Fair Board members — Kristina Dodge and Nick Berardino were absent; David Ellis and Gerardo Mouet had to leave early — will effectively dictate, in the form of a letter to state legislators, the Orange County Fairgrounds' specific opposition of the bill.
Fair Board Chairman Douglas La Belle said the board appreciated the Preservation Society's support and advocacy on the issue, but he felt that assertions that the bill paves the way toward fairgrounds privatization are subjective.
Still, La Belle said the organization doesn't "want to go through the fair sale process again. We want to make sure that the integrity of this property as a fairgrounds for the long term is assured.
"And it's not only this area, but for fairs in general across the state."
The move to keep the state-run property public came in contrast to actions by previous Fair Board members, a majority of whom in 2009 supported the proposal to privatize the 150-acre site. Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had recommended selling state properties as a means to reduce the state's budget deficit.
Fair staff and attorney Roger Grable will write the opposition letter in the coming days.
The letter will ask for clarification of what constitutes a fair and what types of events or activities are permissible on public fairgrounds, said La Belle. It will also ask about the need for a public hearing for any scenario involving "nontraditional uses" of fairgrounds, such as leasing out a portion of the property to a fast-food restaurant, he said.
Sears, calling her attention on the issue "focused like a laser," said she felt the board supported "our years of work that we've been doing on this, our efforts up in Sacramento, our relationships there."
"I mean, we're not just making stuff up," she added. "We're thinking about long-term, unintended consequences based on our experience, with the goal of solidifying and strengthening the network of fairs within the state of California. ... [Legislators] even admit, 'Sorry, I didn't have the time to really look at this.'"
Sears served on Fair Sale Review Committee, which questioned the failed 2010 proposal to sell the property to private developers. The committee's condemning 17-page report has been sent to the Orange County district attorney's office for further legal review.
In a memo to the Fair Board, Grable wrote that the bill was sponsored by a subsidiary of the Western Fairs Assn. He calls it "the industry groups' attempt" to address statewide funding issues for fairs, officially known as agricultural associations, of which the Orange County Fairgrounds is the 32nd District.
Western Fairs helps the state's agricultural associations with lobbying efforts, because they are not allowed to do so on their own, interim fairgrounds Chief Executive Doug Lofstrom said. Lofstrom, who replaced former CEO Jerome Hoban last month, is a former president of Western Fairs.
The Orange County Fairgrounds is a dues-paying member of the association.
"I'm not saying [Western Fairs] doesn't have some good intentions, but the problem is they haven't been where we've been," Sears said.
"You've got to remember that Western Fairs didn't come and support us in stopping the sale," she added. "They did not. They sat on their hands."
On Thursday, the bill left the Senate and its committees and next faces Assembly discussion. It may be voted upon within the month.