DEL MAR — Actions at the Del Mar Fairgrounds have drawn some well-publicized criticisms from at least three state agencies, two local cities, one community activist and a small herd of animal rights advocates.
In its annual management reports, the CDFA (California Department of Food and Agriculture) has consistently accused the 22nd District Agricultural Association, the agency that runs the state-owned fairgrounds, of improperly providing board member benefits and employee leave buybacks.
As a result, the Fair Political Practices Commission, prompted in part by a request from community activist Ian Trowbridge, is investigating the allocation of more than 350 fair and concert tickets to four members of the 22nd DAA board of directors.
The California Coastal Commission has also launched an investigation on the possible misuse of overflow parking lots.
These issues are in addition to ongoing complaints from neighboring Del Mar and Solana Beach that the 300-plus activities at the fairgrounds, not the least of which are the annual San Diego County Fair and horse races, negatively impact those communities with noise, traffic and public services for which they are not fully reimbursed.
Topping off the fairgrounds’ woes is the board’s recent 4-3 decision to continue elephant rides at the fair despite allegations from two animal rights groups that claim the company that provides the rides abuses the animals.
According to management reports by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, from 2005 through 2010 and during the first two weeks of 2011, managers, supervisors and other exempt employees were improperly allowed to cash out leave balances, such as unused vacation pay, totaling almost $525,000.
That number includes at least 18 managers and supervisors and eight rank-and-file employees.
The report states the fair, “without sufficient authority,” established its own employee leave buyout program, allowing certain workers to cash out a maximum of 80 hours of their leave balances annually.
The state doesn’t permit such action without approval from the Department of Personnel Administration. Following a 2007 report, the DPA denied a fairgrounds request to approve 160 hours of annual leave.
From January 2008 to mid-January 2011, the DPA didn’t authorize any cash outs, yet during that time more than $350,000 of leave time was cashed out. That included 580 hours each by two employees, a move that violated the fairgrounds own policy, the report states.
The state has a leave buyback program, but it was suspended “because the state is broke,” said Tim Fennell, fairgrounds chief executive officer. “We’re not broke.”
“We have the cash to pay for this,” fairgrounds officials wrote in response to the report. “Most cash-outs were made due to financial hardships.”
“That money belongs to the employees,” Fennell said. “If they left tomorrow we would have to cash them out.
“It’s not the state’s money,” he said. “It’s not our (22nd DAA) money. Key people were in danger of losing their homes. They had college tuition to pay or health problems. People are hurting.”
The CDFA recommended the fair set up an accounts receivable balance so each employee could pay back any leave amount that was improperly paid out. Director Tom Chino agreed with that proposal, but director Russ Penniman said he would oppose it “until hell freezes over.”
Penniman said asking employees to return the money would likely cause some to quit and it would be a zero-sum gain financially.
Shortly after being named board president this summer, Adam Day directed Fennell to suspend the buybacks pending further review.
Day said that while the practice may make financial sense, it must be implemented according to state rules.
According to CDFA reports, board members have received unsupported fair and concert tickets worth approximately $100,000 since 2004.
State policy allows the unpaid board members to receive free tickets, for them