WATSONVILLE—Nearly 100 people filled the Fine Arts Building at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds Tuesday to attend the Fair’s Board of Directors meeting.
While Fair Board meetings don’t normally draw a large audience—former CEO Dave Kegebein says some days saw nobody in attendance—a growing number have been coming since Oct. 4, when the Board voted 7-2 to fire Kegebein.
Many community members have questioned the move, and said that the Fairgrounds began to show a healthy positive balance under Kegebein’s leadership for the first time in more than a decade.
Don Dietrich, who took the reins after Kegebein’s termination, says the move came after an audit by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) showed 850 expenditures on a state-issued credit card totaling $108,869 were for “various purchases that were personal in nature, unjustified and/or not supported with a receipt or a vendor invoice.”
But many at the time questioned the report’s validity, saying the audit—and the move to fire Kegebein—was part of an effort by the state to take over the Fairgrounds. Kegebein also says he did not have a chance to respond to the audit before the board took action.
He says that he sees signs that the state is targeting its county fairgrounds to be converted into “resiliency centers” and used for emergencies such as the homelessness crisis.
“People need to be engaged with what’s happening in the Fair industry, because there are more and more signs that the people from the state intend to repurpose these fairgrounds from what the community has known them as,” Kegebein said. “If communities don’t stand up and defend their fairgrounds, they are going to be real surprised at the outcome.”
But CDFA Deputy Secretary Michael Flores says that no community need worry about losing their fairgrounds.
He says that Santa Cruz County Fair is one of 17 fairgrounds that stand to benefit from a $96 million package of money from the CDFA intended to help them become emergency centers complete with industrial kitchens and other infrastructure.
When not in use as resiliency centers, Flores said, the kitchens can be used as business incubators, similar to El Pajaro CDC in Watsonville, which holds several small food businesses.
This happened at Redwood Acres Fairgrounds in Eureka, where a pie maker and a cider company set up successful businesses.
Flores points out that annual county fairs are just one event out of the year.
“The rest of the year, CEOs and fair managers are looking to generate revenue,” he said.
The Directors who cast the dissenting votes—Jody Belgard and Loretta Estrada—were abruptly fired about two weeks later in a phone call from the office of Gov. Gavin Newsom, which Former Watsonville Mayor Dennis Osmer reckons was retribution for voting against the termination.
“In total, this was a political strike against a well-run and successful County Fair without regard to local consequences,” he said in a letter to the Pajaronian.
Because the issue of Kegebein’s termination was not on the Board agenda, the Directors took no action.
The disputed charges outlined in the audit included $33,582 in fuel and $2,237 in maintenance charges for his truck.
Kegebein says all the charges he made were for his work at the Fairgrounds, and says he put 200,000 miles on the truck he purchased new to use there.
He agrees with some of the accusations—that he did not duly submit receipts and expense reports—but says he told state officials he would correct that. On Oct. 25, he presented a check for $30,000 to the Board to cover the fuel expenses.
Kegebein points out that the CDFA did not perform an audit during a 10-year stretch before the most recent one came out that was used as justification for his termination.
Several people addressed the Board on Tuesday, nearly all of which spoke against Kegebein’s termination.
“What happened to Dave was wrong,” says Jeanette Crosetti, whose father J.J. Crosetti ran the Fairgrounds in the ‘60s and was active in the community. “We don’t want this to happen again.”
Crosetti urged the directors to travel to Sacramento, as her father did, to advocate for the Fairgrounds at the gubernatorial level.
“Do what’s best for Santa Cruz County, not what’s best for Sacramento,” she said.
Osmer slammed Dietrich for suggesting Kegebein’s termination came because he misappropriated funds as outlined in the audit.
“Where is the evidence? There is no evidence,” Osmer said. “I think Mr. Kegebein is entitled to due process. Please give it to him.”
Gary Stubblefield, the Fairground’s Livestock Superintendent, said Kegebein was the best and most responsive of the several CEOs he worked for.
“Anything that we needed, he was there for us,” Stubblefield said.
Other fairgrounds, Stubblefield added, have lost their livestock departments due to bad management and in-fighting.
“We need someone like Dave to help keep us on track and give us the cooperation we need to keep the livestock going,” he said.
Our fairgrounds will continue to serve the public. Now that the public has had its turn to comment, let the Fairgrounds management and employees get on with maintaining the grounds and facilities.
Personally, I don’t believe anything that comes from Sacramento…..ANYTHING!!! Just for the fact that they didn’t give Dave a chance to explain anything is suspect !!! This is not Russia or China…..or at least not yet!!! I still haven’t seen ANY evidence of ill-intent… My belief is that the board of directors didn’t do their job in oversight…..EVERY board of directors I have been on does a mini-audit every time they meet and an audit by an outside agency once a year…..As I mentioned several months ago, SOMETHING STINKS!!!