Fair board approves special events deputy

The Del Mar Fairgrounds is taking a step toward more security measures after the 22nd District Agricultural Association Board of Directors on Jan. 8 approved a full-time deputy to patrol the venue during special events.

The 7-1 decision — with board member Watson dissenting and board member Lisa Barkett absent — came after the San Diego County Sheriff's Department announced the creation of a special events unit to patrol events at the fairgrounds, Waterfront Playground in San Diego and other areas throughout the county within the sheriff's department's jurisdiction.

The deputy will cost the fairgrounds about $134,000 in its first year and about $192,000 in its second year.

According to Pat Kerins, the public safety director for the fair, the change came as a result of demand on the sheriff's department to provide dedicated law enforcement services for special events within its coverage area.

The fairgrounds' officer would be the same North County Sheriff's Department-based deputy who has been tasked with the fairgrounds for the last decade and would be dedicated to the space with flexible hours to accommodate the venue's needs, Kerins said. In his new role, that same deputy would be moved to the Sheriff’s Department headquarters in Kearny Mesa.

In a letter to the fair board, Kerins listed positives for the change, including that the position would mitigate the need for taxing the law enforcement services of the cities of Del Mar and Solana Beach and that a present uniformed deputy could help deter crime from the fairgrounds.

Without such a deputy, Kerins said, the fairgrounds wouldn't have a "subject-matter expert" of the venue and direct communication with the sheriff's department may be more difficult.

Sheriff's Commander Pete Callewaert added he believed the program would "ensure a level of consistency and customization for [the fairgrounds'] security needs."

But the fair board's decision didn't come easily for some of the board members.

Richard Valdez, vice president of the board, questioned why the sheriff's department moved a deputy to a new task force, with the fair board ultimately having to pay for that change. He questioned if the sheriff's department's level of service to the fairgrounds would be lessened if the board did not approve the change.

"What I'm hearing is there's been a change in policy from the sheriff's department to move people who are effectively helping us, putting them into special units and expecting us to pay if we want that same person to provide the same service he provided before on an ongoing basis," he said.

Callaewaert said if the board did not approve the change, it would instead have a part-time liaison rather than a full-time deputy. He noted the fairgrounds has never had a dedicated officer.

Board member Watson, the lone "no" vote, said he didn't believe the fairgrounds was a "special events facility” and said it was more similar to places like Legoland, SeaWorld or the San Diego Zoo that also operate daily and have similar attendance.

Tim Fennell, the CEO and general manager of the fairgrounds, urged the board to approve the new deputy to keep the venue safe.

Board member Kathlyn Mead agreed, adding she believed the new program could be precautious.

“I see it as an ounce of prevention," she said. "I don’t want us to have this conversation after an incident.”

Before voting to approve the change, Valdez said he believed the decision put the board in a "compromising position."

"As a board member of a public agency that serves hundreds of thousands of people per year, I'm hearing security might be compromised," he said. "That's concerning to me. But also fiscally responsible on a budget that we just passed that's already very tight, this is placing us in a very challenged position. I'm getting few choices as to where I should land on this."

Ultimately, the board decided to adopt the new policy while also asking staff to adjust the budget accordingly and provide a review of the program at the end of the year.

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