By Joe Tash
One day before the 2011 San Diego County Fair opened for business, three veteran members of the board of directors that governs fairgrounds operations got the news: Gov. Jerry Brown no longer required their services.
Little explanation was given before or after for the phone calls, which came on Thursday, June 9, on the eve of the Friday opening of this year’s run of the county fair. Fair board president Barry Nussbaum and members Vivian Hardage and Kelly Burt were told their dismissals took effect immediately.
“These were three individuals who served at the pleasure of the governor. When new appointments are made, they will be announced,” said Evan Westrup, Brown’s spokesman, on Monday.
Nussbaum, Hardage and Burt were members of the 22nd District Agricultural Association board of directors, which oversees operations at the state-owned Del Mar fairgrounds. Members of the volunteer, nine-member board are appointed by the sitting governor to four-year terms.
The terms of seven board members, including the three dismissed last week, are currently expired; the terms of the remaining two board members expire in January.
“By next year, Governor Brown will be able to reconstitute the board entirely,” said Nussbaum, who lives in the unincorporated area east of Del Mar, and had served on the fair board for 13 years. Nussbaum is CEO and founder of BNC Real Estate, a real estate investment firm.
The potential for sweeping change on the fair board comes at a pivotal time for the 406-acre coastal property, which includes the fairgrounds and the Del Mar Racetrack. A proposal remains on the table for the city of Del Mar to purchase the property from the state for $120 million, while the fair board is moving forward with a controversial master plan calling for upgrades and additions to the property.
Fair board members didn’t question Brown’s prerogative to remake the panel with his own appointees, but the method of carrying out the decision and its timing have left some scratching their heads. The announcement came on the eve of the biggest annual event at the fair, when the board is on hiatus, with no meetings planned until August.
Hardage, a Fairbanks Ranch resident who has served on the board for six years and is battling cancer, said she was receiving an infusion at her doctor’s office when a message about the dismissal was left on her cell phone by an aide to the governor.
“I actually was kind of stunned they would step outside the bounds of normal courtesy and leave a message on my cell phone,” said Hardage. “It did come as a surprise, especially the manner in which it was handled.
“I’d just be curious to know what the thinking was, why it was so important to do it at the beginning of the fair. Especially when there are no meetings until August,” said Hardage, who co-founded, along with her husband, Samuel, the Vision of Children Foundation, which raises funds to seek a cure for hereditary childhood blindness.
“It was an honor to serve on the 22nd District Agricultural Association board. It’s a terrific, dedicated group of people who serve on that board,” Hardage said.
Nussbaum said serving on the fair board was one of the great joys of his life, and he plans to re-apply to serve on the board in the future.
“It was a thrill for me every day to go to the fairgrounds. It’s been an honor to have the job,” Nussbaum said.
“I’m sure that the governor’s office is focused on the budget as they should be … and my understanding is the governor is working seven days a week on that project,” Nussbaum said. “My hope is when he pulls off a miracle and fixes or stabilizes our financial crisis, he’ll have time to look at things like fair board appointments and I hope mine will be considered favorably at that time.”
Fair board member Russ Penniman praised his departing board colleagues, and said he hopes the governor will move quickly to fill the seats, because a quorum of five members is needed to conduct business.
“They’re all well-meaning and hard-working and had the best interests of the facility and staff and people of San Diego in mind. We’ve had a good team,” Penniman said. “I’m hopeful we will have some new members in place so we can continue to function effectively.”
Although the board may be short-handed until Brown fills the vacant positions, the remaining board members and the 22nd DAA staff will continue to manage and operate the fairgrounds without interruption, said Adam Day, who was vice president of the board until the dismissals, and is now president.
“The three individuals (Nussbaum, Hardage and Burt) are dedicated volunteers who have worked hard for the people of San Diego,” said Day. “I look forward to working with the new members whoever they are. Turnover on a board like this is part of the process.”
Day has served on the fair board for three years, and his term is set to expire in January. He said he doesn’t see changes on the board having an impact on either the implementation of the master plan or the potential fairgrounds sale.
“Opposition to the sale is far and wide. It’s bad public policy and it’s bad for our economy,” Day said. “It’s such bad policy, it’s essentially dying on the vine in Sacramento.”
The potential sale of the fairgrounds was negotiated between Del Mar officials and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Brown indicated in February that now is not the best time to sell real estate. However, he has not made a final decision on whether to sell the fairgrounds.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for state Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, said Kehoe’s bill authorizing the sale has been put on hold until next year.
As for Brown’s decision on the three fair board dismissals, she said in an email statement, “The members of the Del Mar Fair Board had served a number of years and their terms had expired. It looks like the governor wanted to make a change.”
Del Mar and Solana Beach officials, who have in the past locked horns with the fair board and fairgrounds management over such issues as land use, traffic and noise, favorably greeted the governor’s decision on the three board members.
“I am pleased that Governor Brown is paying attention to the performance of the 22nd DAA board, and that he favors local control. I look forward to the announcement of the three new appointees to the board,” said Del Mar Mayor Don Mosier.
“There are seven expired seats on the fair board so I hope the governor doesn’t stop at just three! I’d like to see him fill this board with individuals who are accountable and responsive to the concerns of the surrounding communities, respectful of the sensitive wetlands in this area and the traditional activities and agricultural goals of the 22nd DAA,” said Solana Beach Mayor Lesa Heebner.
— Reporter Marlena Medford contributed to this report.