By Mona Shadia
Executive director of the First Amendment Coalition says private meeting about O.C. Fairgrounds may have violated state law.
The Orange County Fair & Event Center’s Board of Directors might have violated one of California’s open-meeting laws when its six members, who were appointed by the governor, met privately two weeks ago to discuss a newly formed foundation whose mission is to raise money to buy the O.C. Fairgrounds from the state.
The board might have violated the Bagley-Kean Act, a provision in the California Constitution that requires members of a state board to notify the public about its meetings, according to Peter Scheer, an expert on the state’s open-meeting laws.
“I believe all government process should be open and transparent,” said Jeff Teller, president of the Orange County Market Place, whose members include more than 1,000 vendors who do business at the 150-acre fairgrounds in Costa Mesa. “At this point, the people that serve on the fair board are serving the governor of California and
the people of California. If they are in violation of the law, that seems to be problematic to me.”
David Ellis, the board’s vice chairman, said the six members met two weeks ago to discuss the Orange County Fair and Event Center Foundation’s bylaws and codes of conduct. The foundation was officially created Oct. 7.
When asked why the meeting was conducted privately and out of public view, Ellis and board Chairwoman Kristina Dodge said the trustees did not discuss fair and event center matters. Both said they do not believe the get-together violated any open-meeting laws.
“What if I invited them to dinner at my house? That wouldn’t be a violation,” Dodge said.
Although the foundation is not subject to the Bagley-Kean Act because it’s a nonprofit, the fair’s board is, said Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition in San Rafael, Calif.
“Because the activities and the range of activities of these two institutions, one public and one private, are so similar and so overlapping, almost anything the foundation board might talk about is something that would fall within the jurisdiction of the government entity of the board,” he said. “Therefore, while you have to look at the specifics of what they are discussing, there’s a high probability that every time they get together, ostensibly as the board of the foundation, they are actually meeting illegally as the board of the government entity, whether they think they are or not.”
Ellis listed the six members who serve on the nonprofit foundation as himself, Dodge, Gary Hayakawa, Joyce Tucker, Mary Young and Dale Dykema. The foundation is expected to expand. The six members have asked the Costa Mesa City Council and Orange County to appoint two residents each to serve on the board. The 10 members would then
appoint an 11th board member.
The foundation was formed with the aim of raising funds to buy the fairgrounds, after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his plan to sell high-valued state-owned properties to plug a gaping hole in the California budget. One of the foundation’s goals is to outbid potential buyers and buy the property to keep the fairgrounds as it is.
Although seven state properties were proposed for sale by the governor, the only one officially up for sale is the O.C. Fairgrounds, valued at most at $180 million. The state Assembly voted to put the property up for sale in July thanks to lobbying done on the fair board’s behalf by former state Sen. Dick Ackerman.
“So, we sort of took a different tack and said ‘Why fight the government on this, and let’s see if we can turn it into a positive,'” Dodge said.
Ackerman, who works in Irvine as a partner with the law firm Nossaman LLP, said he was hired to do some of the initial work in Sacramento.
“In order for the fair to be sold, it would require budget language to authorize the state to sell it,” he said. “I did some preliminary work to get the language in the budget.”
Asked why the fairgrounds was the only property successfully inserted into the budget, Ackerman said “nobody else stepped up and said they were interested. Del Mar Fairgrounds thought about it, but they didn’t have the consensus.”
Ackerman would not disclose how much money he made representing the fair’s board, citing attorney-client privileges.
Earlier this month, the fairgrounds was officially put up for sale. The deadline for potential buyers to submit bids for the property is Jan. 8.
What if the foundation doesn’t outbid prospective buyers?
“We would be extremely disappointed,” Dodge said. “In essence, it was a risk that we took by not fighting the government.”