As a news reporter, I attended Santa Cruz County Fair Board of Directors meetings for years, sometimes covering scandalous fair managers and scarce finances. What I saw recently at the Feb. 28 fair board meeting was disturbing on a level I’d never before have imagined.
Board President Don Dietrich committed public slander, accusing a community member of theft without any evidence of such. In fact, the evidence overwhelmingly shows the opposite, which was pointed out by Dennis Osmer during public comment. Dietrich then went on to show how personal his beef was with his target, Dave Kegebein, by offering to resign from the board if Kegebein promised to never step foot on the fairgrounds again. The rest of the board remained silent as all this went on.
Board members would ask Dietrich questions and would only get misdirection as the answer. Director Nicolas Calubaquib asked, more than once, what spurred the proposed increase in rental rates? Are we overbooked? Are costs rising this dramatically? What is it? Dietrich just changed the subject. When asked another time, he talked about the need for a new rate schedule that was set and even for everybody—that this would eliminate any appearance of “backroom deals.”
Members of the public questioned why the board was proposing a special government rate of about half the normal rate, and why nonprofits, some that had donated tens of thousands of dollars to the fairgrounds, weren’t being offered any break? Nobody got any answers. The board would eventually vote on a proposal that would set rates for nonprofits as the same for government agencies, but that failed and the whole issue will return next month.
Of course, next month, we will likely see that somehow this board will have resolved the issue, outside of public view and also outside of what is legal according to the Brown Act. It’s hard to really know what is entirely going on with the board because the state has taken it over, firing anybody from the community who was trusted, replacing them with people who are seemingly unaware of the fairgrounds’ history, its usage and the community around it that it mostly serves. Because, while it is technically the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, it is mostly the south part of the county that uses it.
The Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds is in trouble. Events that have taken place there for years are leaving or are struggling to understand how they might stay. A quilting group that held an event over the weekend complained about a complete lack of service, even struggling to access the bathrooms. The local chapter of Burning Man, unSCruz, has moved its event to San Benito County. Maybe the local fair will have to be held there too!
Fair department heads are in the dark about what is going on. Correspondence from the Amateur Wine Division Chair Debbie Yakulis has some important questions for the fairgrounds management: “When will we receive any funding? I need to book a caterer for the judging event and found out that food costs have increased significantly so need to know if we will continue the same system as before? Who is in charge of ordering the ribbons and plaques?”
There’s a lot of questions the public has of this board and fairgrounds management, but they don’t get answered. One thing that is clear to me is that Dietrich needs to step away from the board, as he offered to do, but without any preconditions. A board president who so clearly has a private vendetta against a community member and displays it so boldly during a meeting, needs to step aside. He also puts the board in legal jeopardy. Kegebein is not a public official.
This community also needs involvement from our elected officials. Obviously, something is happening at the state level that this public is not privy to. State Senator John Laird, Assemblymember Robert Rivas and County Supervisor Felipe Hernandez need to either get to a board meeting, or send a representative. The Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds is an important asset to this community. It creates community. And this community seems to be losing it.
Jon Chown was the editor-in-chief of the Register-Pajaronian from 2000 to 2011 and has helped the fairgrounds and associated entities with various public relations services since. His opinions are his own and not necessarily those of the Pajaronian.