All’s War and Love in FAIR Board Meeting…


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Boy, do we at the Orange Juice Blog like it when sparks fly!  And yesterday’s OC Fair Board meeting did not disappoint in that regard.

I’ll skip all the friendly parts, there’s a lot of good constructive stuff that IS getting done for the Fair and Fairgrounds despite all the hostilities – there’s some new fancy lit-up runway celebrating the old WWII-era Army base there, and progress being made on Nick Berardino’s brainchild of a public-art competition “commemorating the contributions of agricultural workers to our state” – two projects the whole board is enthusiastically co-operating on.  But for us, on to the FIREWORKS:

Thursday Morning’s Media Propaganda Blitz

Residents of the Costa Mesa area, where the Fairgrounds are located, woke up yesterday morning to a 1-2-3 punch in their local rag The Daily Pilot – after several weeks of no coverage at all, there were suddenly three pieces in one issue, all savaging the critics and foes of the old Dave Ellis-led Board.

Two of these pieces, purporting to be journalism, were written by a Jon Cassidy, who was recently fired from the Register and is now working as a “freelancer.”  One of Cassidy’s articles, rife with inaccuracies, argued that the Fairgrounds’ Equestrian Center doesn’t pull its weight financially and thus enjoys a sort of public subsidy for spoiled wealthy horse-types – long a favorite contention of Ellis, especially since the equestrians were among the most militant fighters against his attempts to privatize and own the Fairgrounds himself.

Cassidy’s second broadside pointed out the ironic incompatibility of two of Nick Berardino’s causes – the new “Fair Sale Review Committee” whose purpose is to investigate just how the Great Fairgrounds Swindle nearly happened in 2009-10, and the Attorney General’s decision to continue to withhold legal representation for the Board.  If you remember, AG Jerry Brown withdrew his office’s legal representation back in ’09 when he learned about all the hinkiness and conflicts of interest going on, making the OC Fair Board the only public entity in the state to have to pay extra for a private law firm.  Last month the Board unanimously asked the AG to return since the swindle was over and failed, and at first the AG agreed, until they learned about the Sale Review Committee, and then they re-withdrew on the grounds that the matter was “still not settled.”   (One little problem with the supposed “irony” in this Cassidy article, or how it was spoon-fed to him, is that asking the AG back was not a “Berardino idea” but a unanimous, sensible move from the whole Board.)

This trifecta of spin was rounded off by an opinion piece from one Steve Smith, caricaturing the OC Fairgrounds Preservation Society – the heroic hard-working folks who saved the property from privatization in 2009-10 – as “malconents” who “complain about everything.”

Taken all together, it was unmistakeable – a certain Mr. Toad lookalike had been busy doing what he does best, planting stories in the press as a pre-emptive assault against the Sale Review Committee he’s obviously so worried about.

The Backlash, Fast and Furious!

The public comments at the beginning of the meeting immediately took the form of outcry against these three deceptive, slanted articles.  Most indignantly, the equestrian spokesman denounced the use of one of his best customer’s names in that article, a nice lady who preferred to remain private, as well as the completely dishonest accounting of how much she spends to keep her horses there.  (A hell of a lot more than the article lets on.)

Tkaczyk. Pronounced "Tkaczyk."

New Board member Stan Tkaczyk was determined to get to the bottom of this Cassidy article’s genesis, questioning CEO Steve Beazley “Has the press been inquiring into the equestrian center’s finances?”  “No, not at all, but some of the Board members have.”  “Would that Board member be Dave Ellis?”  “YES.”  “Ha!  I KNEW IT!”  Stan shot back, eyes flashing across the table at Dave.  (Have I mentioned the bitter history between Dave Ellis, and Stan’s columnist wife Barbara Venezia?  The irrepressible Babs, who didn’t use to come to Fair Board meetings, but now has her special seat in the front row?  Read my Dave Ellis piece, it’s gotta be in there.)

Nick Berardino, seated next to Stan, began to list all the lies and distortions in the Pilot pieces, demanding corrections.  Nick was all, “I understand all about farming out stories to the press, Dave, and I’m sorry to see it took you thirty days to get this one out there, but you finally did, just in time, so congratulations!”

And Dave, in response, was all, “You people – one of you is married to a journalist (that’s Stan and Barbara) and three of you are on the board of a big blog…” (that would be the excellent Voice of OC, and Ashleigh and Stan, although Nick is actually not on the board, but IS head of OCEA, which gave the Voice initial funding but is no longer the major funder)  “…so you’ve got no room talking to me about manipulating the press!”  [Or something like that, I paraphrase from memory.]

The gallant Jahangiri.

Nick plowed on relentlessly with falsehoods in the Cassidy articles that needed correcting, until Board member Ali Jahangiri, the young Arnold appointee who seems to have become protective and defensive of comity and of Dave (although funny thing he never seems to actually vote with him) blew a gasket:  “Okay, this is getting boring.  We’ve got it – the article is full of mistakes.  We’ll get a correction.  Let’s move on.”  And Nick was, “Excuse me, Ali, do you want to run this meeting now?”  And it went back and forth like that, until Nick finally got his way and enumerated ALL the mistakes in the Cassidy article that needed correcting – and which had been spoon-fed to the poor hack by a certain Mr. Toad lookalike.

(The Pilot’s editor John Canales was in the audience, as was “journalist” Cassidy, seated in the back like a dazed kid in a dunce cap, trying to camouflage himself next to real journalist Norberto Santana.  Canales later apologized profusely for the articles, and promised to correct them.)

Last Desperate Attempts to Derail the “Fair Sale Review Committee”

Then, for a while, some constructive stuff got done, but you don’t want to hear about that, do you?  The high point of the meeting, what all of us derailers were looking forward to and others were dreading, was the part establishing the Sale Review Committee, which – after months of being shot down – had been approved UNANIMOUSLY at the last meeting – the meeting known popularly as “The Elephant Meeting.”  Yes, approved unanimously.  Because Dave had left The Elephant Meeting early and didn’t vote.  And today’s task was to “review and approve the Committee’s scope of work,” and to “provide direction regarding the appointment of committee members.”

Well, Dave Ellis sure had a lot of good ideas to help this Committee do its work, now that he’d at long last failed to prevent its existence!

First of all, after stating for the record that he knows the process will be “biased” and he “doesn’t trust” the people involved, he produced a “partial list” of 71 people that he insisted must be interviewed by the Committee before they could possibly have a fair idea of what had happened.  The Pot-Stirrer, who bothered to run up and grab a copy, describes it:

“Besides himself and every other then-sitting Board member, it includes state and federal legislators, county officials, elected city officials (past and present), other bidders on the property, consultants involved in the process and many, many more.”

The idea being, probably, not only to make the process take forever, and get a lot of other hinky people who will make good and confusing excuses, but also to spread the blame far and wide and make Dave look not so bad.  Nick perused the list and gamely agreed, “Sure, we should talk to ALL of ‘em,” and then got a big laugh with the afterthought, “Are you sure all of these people are still alive?”

The next Board member to suddenly have a brilliant idea of how to make this Committee EVEN BETTER was young Ali, who insisted that it would be a TRULY GREAT Committee if it had EVERYBODY in it - open to ANYONE from the public who wanted to join!

And Stan and Nick were all, “Listen, we’ve discussed the make-up of this committee at length in previous meetings, and you guys are just trying to – ” and Ali immediately bristled at the usage of “you guys” – “I’m not part of any ‘you guys,’ I thought of this idea myself, and didn’t discuss it with anyone!”

It took equestrian derailer Theresa Sears to explain the self-evident lameness of Ali’s free-for-all idea, “This is a classic way of making sure a committee can’t do anything – you saddle it with an indeterminate number of members, half of them don’t show up, you don’t have a quorum, yeah, yeah, I know how that works.”

Nick, tired of fighting with Ali, suggested a compromise (which passed) – FIVE NEW AT-LARGE members, as well as TWO from the Chamber of Commerce, all of which to be named by Chair Tucker and Vice-Chair LaBelle.

This is when the other new Board member, attorney Ashleigh Aitken, finally piped up with a very good point – these seven new members “MAY” be included, not “MUST” be – otherwise some of them just won’t materialize, and voila – committee hamstrung!  Good work, counselor Ashleigh, I believe we dodged a bullet there.

And then Dave was back to throwing spanners into the works – any spanners he could lay his hands on, from his vast collection of ‘em.  First, “This Committee is going to have to follow the Bagley-Keane Act, have all its meetings public, post its agenda in advance, etc etc.”  and everyone is yeah, yeah, of course, of course, nobody pointing out how ironic it is for this shifty character to suddenly be concerned with open governance.

“Let me be right up front with you people, I don’t trust you,” Dave continued, “You’ve told lies about me!” His face was turning new colors and he sounded shaky, it was a blessed thing to behold.  What lies have we told about him?  “For example, you’ve said that *I* would have profited by the sale of the Fair to my Foundation!”

DID we say that, and is it a lie?  I probably did write that once or twice, as a sort of shorthand.  Maybe it’s true, given a narrow definition of “profit,” that he wouldn’t have directly profited, financially, from owning and controlling this property.  Big deal.  Think what a priceless and wonderful thing it would have been, for someone as ambitious and greedy as Dave, just to have that power – over 150 historic acres of central Orange County property – and the millions of dollars that flow through it.  Big deal, split hairs.  Of course he coveted the Fairgrounds, and of course he had no business getting it.

Then he got to his final demand, his coup-de-gras:  Everybody on the Committee needs to fill out a “700″ financial disclosure form - “You all know what I make, I want to know what YOU make!”

Derailer/blogger Reggie Mundekis knocked this down handily – the Committee is only gonna be advisory, and you can go ahead and get an opinion with the FPPC if you think we need to file those forms, but you’ll be disappointed.

But this was not before both Nick and Stan positively flipped their lids.  Tossing something or another across the table in exasperation, Nick shouted, “You’re really just trying to KILL this Committee, aren’t you?  I was skeptical before, but NOW I KNOW YOU HAVE SOMETHING TO HIDE, DAVE!!!”

And over the laughter and applause, you could see and hear Stan turning to Nick and exulting, “I TOLD you so, Nick, I TOLD you so!”

.

Popcorn Futures Soar

So, the Committee will include Sandy Genis, Theresa Sears, Reggie Mundekis and Lisa Sabo.  A lot of other people too, but as long as those four are on, we’re in good hands and in for a wild ride.  A lot of the stuff I’ve reported over the years, a lot of the stories I’ve broken and Norberto has broken, have come from these women’s tireless investigating.  And now they’ll get access to all the documents that have been hidden from them thus far, and access to a lot of people who wouldn’t talk to them before.  Paging Dick Ackerman???

Dave and his allies have fretted that this is going to turn into a “witch hunt,” and these ladies promise that’s not what they want – they just want to get to the bottom of things, find out what really happened, and figure out how to make sure nothing like it ever happens again.  BUT.  We are not like our dear President Barack Obama, with his curious insistence on “Not looking back, just looking forward.”  That’s just … BAD CIVIC HYGIENE.


About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist in Orange County. Performs regularly with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem, and at regular concerts at the Huntington Beach Central Library.