WATSONVILLE—In the latest chapter in the drawn-out saga at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, a local group has created an online petition to remove Board President Don Dietrich.
The petitioners say that Dietrich has shown a lack of leadership, and that he put the needs of “mid-level Sacramento bureaucrats” over the Santa Cruz County community by acquiescing to state demands that they fire former Fairgrounds Manager Dave Kegebein.
They were referring to California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) Deputy Secretary Michael Flores, who has attended several recent meetings along with his legal counsel. Most county fairs are state-owned and run under the auspices of CDFA.
The petition was created after Dietrich directly accused Kegebein of a crime for using a state-issued credit card to purchase fuel for his truck during the Feb. 28 meeting of the Santa Cruz County Fair Board. It was the first time such accusations have been levied against Kegebein.
Some of the mileage Kegebein claims improperly comes from his commute to and from his home in Hollister, Dietrich says.
“A theft occurred of state money,” he said. “Over $30,000 worth. I don’t know anybody that would allow $30,000 worth of theft from their business or from a government agency and still keep somebody employed. So that’s the bottom line.”
Speaking directly to Kegebein at the Feb. 28 meeting, Dietrich said he would resign from the board if Kegebein promised to stay off of Fairgrounds property.
“And quit trying to misdirect and cause chaos here so this organization can move forward,” Dietrich said. “If you care about the Fair, Dave, you do what’s right and I’ll do what’s right. That’s up to you.”
Kegebein calls the allegations “false accusations,” and has said that all the purchases were for his work at the fair, and on Oct. 25 presented the Board with a $30,000 check to cover the fuel costs.
Normally an agency that garners little notice as it conducts its public meetings, the Fair Board found itself thrust into public scrutiny when the Board voted 5-2 to fire Kegebein in October.
The members who dissented—Jody Belgard and Loretta Estrada—were fired without being given a reason about two weeks later in a phone call from the office of Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Now frequently contentious, the Board meetings draw dozens of people who pack the cavernous Fairground buildings.
Kegebein’s termination came after an audit by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) showed he made hundreds of purchases on a state-issued credit card totaling more than $100,000 that were deemed personal in nature, without turning in receipts. This included $33,582 in fuel and $2,237 in maintenance for his truck.
Kegebein and his supporters say the Board erred when it fired him, and that Kegebein should have been allowed to correct the issues shown by the report. They point to the fair’s healthy finances as a measure of his success.
But Dietrich says the picture is not quite as rosy. The livestock barns are in “disarray,” he says, and a landslide is currently covering the lower access road, both issues that Kegebein should have addressed. Dietrich estimates the latter issue could cost from $250,000 to $1 million to fix, which could eat through the Fairground’s reserve.
Dietrich also said that he plans to respond to the often boisterous public criticism during future meetings, and to outline the reasons behind the Board’s decision.
“The Fair Board is trying to conduct business and move the Fairgrounds forward, make sure that we have a fair, that we have our buildings rented so we have enough money to keep the doors open,” he said. “And there seems to be a concerted effort from a group of people to try and create disruption, and to stop that from happening.”
Ocean Speedway contract questioned
The Board is also taking fire for the Feb. 28 approval of a three-year contract with Ocean Speedway, which allows the facility to hold as many as 25 races per year.
Under the contract, Ocean Speedway pays $81,200 annually for use of the property. The facility is subject to a 11pm curfew, and is bound by noise restrictions.
In addition, Ocean Speedway can sell beer under the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds Foundation’s license, or sell it independently.
While the contract was placed on the Board agenda before the meeting, Trina Coffman-Gomez, a former Watsonville City Councilwoman who has served on several boards, says that the board duly took public comment about the contract, but then improperly moved to closed session before approving it.
The closed session discussion should have been placed on the agenda before the meeting, she says, and whatever changes occurred to the contract should have been aired in public.
“That’s a process that is not legal in the eyes of the transparency of the public,” she said.
Coffman-Gomez has written a letter to Sen. John Laird, asking him to investigate the Board.
“There is reason to believe that Board decisions are being made that conflict with the best interest of the management of the fairgrounds and lack transparency with the public for this valuable asset the fairgrounds provides to our community,” she wrote.
Kegebein calls the contract a “backroom deal.”
Dietrich says that he and the board made their decisions after consulting with a CDFA attorney, and that the contract was duly posted online, as is required by open meeting laws.
“I did not do anything in any step of the way of that process without talking to CDFA legal,” he said. “They were advising us through the whole process.”
Responding to criticism that the contract should have been open to public bid, Dietrich said that Kegebein never did so in the 12 years he managed the Fair.
For his part, Kegebein says the Fair Board should work to move the Fairgrounds forward, instead of criticizing his past management.
He says that he helped move the Fairgrounds to a healthy financial position, even as many other county fairs struggled.
“Some people are stuck looking in the rearview mirror, and other people are looking forward to what’s happening and what’s coming,” he said. “And unfortunately right now the community is looking out their windshield for some vision and direction, and they’re seeing a blank screen.”