By Jennifer Muir
The Orange County supervisors voted unanimously this morning to urge Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to block the sale of the Orange County Fairgrounds.
The city of Costa Mesa last week agreed to ask the governor to scrap the sale, and advocates call today’s move a critical step toward preserving the fairgrounds. The county’s resolution also asks other Orange County cities to join in solidarity opposing the sale.
“We hope the governor will give us a big Christmas present,” said Reggie Mundekis, a member of the Orange County Fairgrounds Preservation Society. “This is a very critical point for us today.”
Schwarzenneger has advocated selling the 150-acre fairgrounds to help close a massive state budget deficit — a move approved by lawmakers.
Updated 6 p.m.: County supervisors had initially supported selling the land, if the state required the new owner to continue its tradition as a fairground, events center and equestrian facility.
The state didn’t require those conditions when the land went on the market last month. So Supervisors John Moorlach and Bill Campbell asked the board to oppose the sale.
A spokesman for Schwarzenegger said his office had not yet received requests from the county or the city of Costa Mesa, so he couldn’t comment on them. He said the administration plans to move forward with the process to determine if a sale is beneficial to the state. If it’s not, “it’s the administration’s prerogative to halt the process.”
But the governor has said the state shouldn’t be in the real estate business.
“In these difficult economic times, the governor is committed to doing everything to shore up state revenues and realize savings for the people of California,” spokesman Mike Naple said.
The decision to sell the land left local community leaders scrambling – and sometimes fighting – over how to preserve its tradition.
Members of the Orange County Fair board in October formed a nonprofit foundation to explore buying the fairgrounds. The county is looking how to borrow internally to buy the land if it does go on the market, Moorlach said Tuesday. And the city of Costa Mesa also could bid if the sale moves forward, City Manager Allan Roeder said.
Meanwhile, a lawyer for the county last month accused the fair board and its foundation of going too far in its own efforts to buy the property. In a complaint filed with the state Attorney General, county counsel Nicholas Chrisos alleges fair board members illegally used public money to pay former state Sen. Dick Ackerman and his law firm to influence the sale of the land to ensure their foundation could qualify to bid.
Chrisos believes that fair board members could benefit financially from the contract because if their foundation is the successful buyer, members could enjoy financial perks, such as free parking and concert tickets. The district attorney’s office is looking into the complaint, a spokeswoman said.
Kristina Dodge, who heads both the fair board and the foundation, said Tuesday that the allegations are hurtful and untrue. She said the fair board hired Ackerman to help the fair board navigate the complicated process of selling the fair, not to lobby.
“We would never ever knowingly break any laws let alone bend any laws,” Dodge said. “We felt like we’re here as stewards of the fair, and we want to continue that, so of course it would seem natural to go out and protect the fair. … I think we’re not getting that message out there because people feel like we’re trying to hide something. That’s just not where we’re coming from.”
To that end, Dodge believes that selling the fair might not be such a bad idea – an opportunity to take local control of the fairgrounds and modernize it.
“What worries me is how many years will people be willing to stand up and fight and will the state of California be willing to allow this 150 acres to sit there when it’s not highly profitable,” she said. “We should be planning because I don’t see in the real near future that the state is going to pull themselves out of the mess we’re in.”