Amid a possible county partnership, Del Mar residents share their vision for the fair board

By Claire Harlin

There’s a proposal on the table for San Diego County and the 22nd District Agricultural Association to partner up in running the Del Mar Fairgrounds, and it’s got some locals thinking this could be the happy ending to a decades-long effort to secure a local voice on the board.

Concerns that decisions made at the state-governed fairgrounds don’t always reflect the best interest of the fair’s neighboring communities — Solana Beach and Del Mar — are not new. Del Mar resident Bud Emerson is one of several local “fair watchers” who keep up with issues concerning the fair and have helped recruit a number of qualified candidates to apply for fair board positions. Six Del Mar applicants — including a former mayor, a former city manager and city attorney, and a retired judge who was once appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown to the Superior Court — have vied for board spots since Brown was elected last year, and all have been vetoed far into the selection process. Candidates have also come forth from Solana Beach.

“We think there’s someone in the inner circle who’s got the governor’s ear and has a strong anti-Del Mar bias,” Emerson said, adding that a “simple fix” would be to have two seats on the nine-member board that are designated for one resident appointed from Del Mar and another from Solana Beach.

“My thinking is that this new partnership proposal with the county is a potential opportunity, if the county negotiates with integrity,” he said. “I’m sure the governor has so many other things to worry about, which makes even more sense to have a local process.”

Longtime Del Mar resident Peter Kaye, however, said Del Mar should be careful what it wishes for. Just because someone lives in Del Mar, doesn’t mean they would serve as a Del Mar advocate. An author and former journalist, Kaye wrote a newspaper op-ed years ago about Del Mar wanting its own seat on the board. In it, he interviewed his neighbor and friend, Brooks Parry, who was the last Del Mar resident to serve on the board.

He wrote that Parry, who passed away last month, considered herself a “director from Del Mar rather than Del Mar’s representative on the board.

From 1986 to 1995, she was known on the board for her passionate interest in agriculture and the junior livestock auction, however, she told Kaye in the interview for his op-ed that “fair board members should represent the whole county and not just Del Mar.”

“Often, the [Del Mar City Council] is a faction that says ‘Do it my way or no way,’” she said, adding that she “tried not to have a pre-conceived point of view.”

She did say, however, that the fair board positions “are real political plums.”

“They’re more prized than judgeships or seats on the UC Board of Regents,” Kaye quoted her as saying in his column.

Kaye said this is because “Del Mar really has no clout” to the Governor.

“There’s been bad blood between the city and the fair for 15 years or more,” he said. “What’s important to the Governor is getting people on the fair board who will support him and become his political ally … In the case of Brooks, though, she was a real exception … The people who backed her had agricultural interests.”

Jacqueline Winterer, a longtime Del Mar resident and lagoon advocate who has spoken at many a fair board meeting over the years, referred to the way fair board members are chosen as “crony capitalism.”

“The reason the fair board is at the present time an unsuitable governing body is because its members are appointed by the Governor after making a large contribution to the Governor’s reelection campaign,” she said. “Democrat or Republican, they represent none of the millions of people impacted by their decisions.”

She said the elected city councils of San Diego, Del Mar and Solana Beach should each appoint a member to the board, the county’s Board of Supervisors should appoint a member, and other members may be appointed by agencies such as the Coastal Commission, the Water Quality Control Board and the Department of Fish and Game. She added that nine board members are too many, and seven or five may be adequate.

“I would compensate the board members who serve to encourage their attendance at board meetings,” she added. “The fair board has a difficult time reaching a quorum.”

Emerson said he’d like to see the fair board use some sort of neighborhood impact report, which would be similar to the environmental review cities order before embarking on major projects. He said he’d like the board to examine the effects of traffic, noise, light and impact on the environment in regard to their events and developments.

“Hopefully they would ask their staff what the impact would be in those areas, so at least we know that they’ve considered it,” Emerson said. “Even if they can’t fix it, we’d feel more respected if they actually considered it.”

He said there have been people on the board who are actually “anti-Del Mar, who go out of their way to make fun of Del Mar and talk about how difficult we are.”

“In most government agencies, you wouldn’t do that,” he said.

Emerson said the things that take place at the fair are mostly “good and good for the customers, but it’s like having a big party house on your block and they don’t understand that other people on the block live there too.”

“’I don’t want a skunk at the party,’ is the way they think,” he said. “If they had someone from Del Mar, at least there would be a fuller discussion.”

Kaye said that having a local member on the board would be “symbolic,” and that person may be able to influence the others on the board.

“But they are still only one out of nine votes,” he said.