Ag. district suspends buy-back program until new audit made public

By Joe Tash

Contributor

A program under which Del Mar Fairgrounds employees could cash in paid leave, which has drawn criticism from state auditors, has been suspended until a new audit of the state-owned facility’s operations is made public.

Adam Day, president of the nine-member volunteer board that oversees the fairgrounds, said he has instructed fairgrounds staff to temporarily suspend the buy-back program for paid leave until an audit covering 2009 through 2010 is released by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, possibly in time for the fair board’s scheduled meeting on Nov. 8. Day said he also wants a review of the rules related to such leave buy-backs.

“Obviously, all applicable rules and regulations need to be adhered to. And if they haven’t (been), we need to understand why and we need to address them publicly,” said Day.

Attention was focused on the upcoming audit, and a previous audit released to the public in January 2010, at the fair board’s meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 11. Newly appointed board member Tom Chino requested that both the current and past audits be placed on the fair board’s November agenda for discussion.

Chino, who declined to comment before the next board meeting, submitted a statement to the board noting that he had reviewed an audit report for 2007, and also a draft report for a 2008-09 audit. (Day said the new audit will cover 2009-10.)

“The contents of these reports causes me great concern over allegations that the district has not complied with governing laws and regulations in several important areas and that large amounts of money are at issue,” said Chino’s statement.

A spokesman with the California Department of Food and Agriculture wrote in an email to this newspaper that, “The current audit is in draft form and will be available when final.”

The 2007 audit report, which was posted on a state public records website in January 2010, listed four areas of “reportable conditions that are considered weaknesses in the fair’s operations.”

“Over a three-year period, the Fair improperly allowed its employees to cash out more than $244,000 of compensated leave hours, such as vacation and annual leave,” said the report. The 22nd District Agricultural Association, the public agency that runs the fairgrounds for the state, allowed managers, supervisors and certain other classes of employees to cash out a maximum of 80 hours of leave each year, even though state policy only allowed a maximum of 40 hours under a one-time program.

Further, the report said the fairgrounds hadn’t followed its own policy, allowing employees to cash out more than 80 hours annually. During one calendar year, the audit report said, one employee cashed out 508 hours and one employee cashed out 344 hours.

In a response signed by fairgrounds general manager Tim Fennell and then-board president Kelly Burt, the officials defended the practice.

“Because the District has sufficient cash to fund this liability, management believes that it is prudent to pay out leave on a case by case basis. This helps employees who face financial hardships, and decreases the financial liability of the District,” the response said.

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