County to move ahead with plans to form joint powers authority for Del Mar Fairgrounds

By Joe Tash

County supervisors voted unanimously April 23 to move ahead with plans to form a joint powers authority with the state board that oversees the Del Mar Fairgrounds, which could lead to the formation of a new, 14-member board to manage fairgrounds operations.

The county has been in talks with the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which currently manages the state-owned property in coastal North County, to create a new governance model that provides more local control over the facility.

More than 40 people, including elected city and state officials and their representatives, spoke in favor of the proposal at the meeting, which was held at the County Administration Center in downtown San Diego, versus a handful of speakers who criticized the proposal or sought to delay a decision. Supervisors also declined requests from the cities of San Diego, Del Mar and Solana Beach to make them voting members of the new board.

Instead, Supervisor Dave Roberts, a former member of the Solana Beach City Council, requested his colleagues consider adding “ex officio,” or non-voting, seats to the new board for the three cities, whose boundaries either include portions of the fairgrounds property or are adjacent to the fairgrounds.

“Some people are going to lynch me in my district for saying that,” said Roberts, who was elected to the Board of Supervisors last November.

Both county officials and members of the 22nd DAA board — who are appointed by the governor — said state law allows the 22nd DAA to form a partnership with the county, but not a city.

“Unfortunately, that’s not allowed under existing state law,” said Supervisor Greg Cox, who, along with Supervisor Ron Roberts, brought the issue forward to the full Board of Supervisors last fall.

While acknowledging that the three cities want full representation on the board, Cox said the plan approved Tuesday will increase regional representation on the board that oversees the fairgrounds.

“I hope we don’t lose sight of the possible in pursuit of the perfect,” Cox said.

Supervisors on Tuesday directed their staff to work with the 22nd DAA to draw up an agreement for the new board, which will come back before the Board of Supervisors in about 60 days.

If the partnership is eventually formalized, the new board would be made up of the current nine members of the 22nd DAA board, plus five new members appointed by the county supervisors. Each supervisor could nominate either him or herself for the new joint powers board, or a representative.

San Diego Mayor Bob Filner asked supervisors to put off a decision for 30 days to allow more discussion, and to create seats for the three cities.

“We want to be involved,” Filner said.

Del Mar Councilman Don Mosier, and Solana Beach Councilwoman Lesa Heebner also spoke, asking that their cities be represented, because of the impacts the fairgrounds has on their communities.

Supervisor Ron Roberts said it was never his objective to gain control over the fairgrounds.

“It was not our intent to control, rather it was our intent to have regional influence,” he said. “I think what’s before us today is a good start.”

The issue of governance of the 340-acre fairgrounds — and the 65-acre horse park property to the east — came to the forefront in 2010 when former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed to sell the property to the city of Del Mar for $120 million. The proposal generated intense opposition, including from the 22nd DAA, and Schwarzenegger’s successor, Jerry Brown, killed the deal.

However, state officials have encouraged the county-22nd DAA partnership as a way of giving the local community a greater voice in running the fairgrounds.

Adam Day, president of the 22nd DAA board, initiated the talks in an October letter to Supervisor Ron Roberts.

Day has strongly supported the proposed partnership, saying that it will increase accountability and transparency in the fairgrounds’ operation, and provide protections to fairgrounds employees, who are now state employees.

The proposal now under discussion calls for allowing current workers to either remain on the state payroll, or become employees of the new joint powers authority, or JPA. New hires would work for the JPA.

Day said after the meeting that the next step is to draft an agreement between the county and the 22nd DAA, which would ultimately have to be approved by the boards of both agencies, as well as by state officials.

As for adding non-voting seats to the new board for Del Mar, Solana Beach and San Diego, Day said Supervisor Dave Roberts’ comments were the first he’d heard of the suggestion. “I’m open to discussion,” he said.

Del Mar Councilman Mosier said he and his council colleagues had considered the idea of “ex officio” seats.

“It’s not my favorite option, but it’s better than no seat at the table,” Mosier said.

He added that attorneys for both Del Mar and Solana Beach disagree that state law prohibits a partnership between the 22nd DAA and local cities. If necessary, he said, state legislation could be written to allow it.

Del Mar still wants representation on the fairgrounds board, Mosier said. “We’re going to continue to press for it.”