Resident questions spending on Del Mar Fairgrounds

DEL MAR — Despite its name, the Del Mar Fairgrounds is owned by the state, not the city in which it is located, and governed by a nine-member board of directors appointed by the governor. So to some it may seem odd that the current board — a few of them Arnold Schwarzenegger appointees — is opposing the proposed sale of the facility that was negotiated by the former governor’s office.
And at least one person is questioning the board’s decision to allocate money, after the fact, to address the impacts of a bill that would authorize the $120 million sale.
During the public comment period at the Feb. 8 meeting, Del Mar resident Laura DeMarco asked board members why they had just approved two contracts, one of which had already expired and another that was halfway to that point.
One agreement was with a public relations firm, Southwest Strategies LLC, for “Consultation Services and Development of Public Awareness Campaign Regarding Impact of Senate Bill 1.” That contract began Nov. 1, 2010, and runs through April 2011.
The other agreement was with The Flanigan Law Firm, a Sacramento-based company of “experienced government relations professionals and registered lobbyists,” for “Legal Services Regarding Impact of Senate Bill 1 with Respect to the DAA’s Master Plan.” That contract began Dec. 1, 2010, and expired Jan. 31, 2011.
Neither agreement was to exceed $75,000, and both were approved as part of the consent calendar so they were enacted along with other agenda items with one motion.
DeMarco said she didn’t understand why the board would retroactively approve the contracts, especially since regular monthly meetings have been held. She also said she didn’t believe “spending state money to lobby state legislators” was an appropriate use of public funds.
“It seems like very poor governance,” DeMarco said.
Laws governing public meetings prohibited board members from discussing remarks made during the public comment period. Fairgrounds officials did not return phone calls and an e-mail requesting a response.
In 2008, Schwarzenegger proposed selling state-owned property to help deal with a massive budget deficit. The local fairgrounds was originally part of the package but was eventually taken off the table.
Del Mar City Council members and staff spent the next 18 months negotiating a deal to buy the facility, which makes up about 20 percent of Del Mar, the smallest city in the county.
Officials from that city claim local control will ensure the continuation of the fair, horse racing and other appropriate events. They say it will also protect the site from overdevelopment and the adjacent wetlands from environmental damage.
Fairgrounds officials oppose the sale, claiming the facility will likely end up bankrupt if owned by Del Mar. The board president once described the financial plans as “voodoo economics.”
The 22nd District Agricultural Association, which governs the site, is expected to certify a draft environmental impact report in April for expansion plans for the facility that include new exhibition halls, parking structures, an administrative building and a hotel condominium with rooftop sports arenas, although board members have said that letter has been deleted.
SB 1 is in the early stages of the legislative process. It has yet to begin committee hearings. If it gets through the Senate, it must still go through the same process in the Assembly.
If it passes both Houses, its final fate lies in the hands of Gov. Jerry Brown, who can either sign or veto the bill. Although he has yet to say whether he supports the sale, Brown recently said he didn’t think this was the best time to be selling real estate.

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