In a few weeks, the fairgrounds in Ferndale will be awash with the smell of fry oil and children's gleeful screams as the 122nd annual Humboldt County Fair gets underway.
Meanwhile, the Humboldt County Fair Association — the nonprofit that runs the fair — and the county of Humboldt have been meeting behind closed doors to hammer out a lease agreement that will allow the association to operate the fairgrounds and put on the fair for the next five years. We reached out to both Humboldt County Fair Association General Manager Richard Conway and county counsel about the status of the lease negotiations, and both declined to comment, citing the need to keep negotiations confidential.
Fair enough, but we feel the need to weigh in and urge the county to insist that any final agreement require the association to abide by California's open meeting and government transparency laws, namely the Ralph M. Brown Act and the California Public Records Act, respectively. Why do we feel the need for such a public statement?
Well, since changing its status in 2014 from an affiliate of a government unit to a nonprofit, the association has been operating under the belief that it no longer has to abide by these laws. It's a stance that is wrong on many levels and one that has proven costly.
In addition to stewarding the fair, itself a community institution, the association receives state funding and governs 65 acres of county property in the middle of Ferndale. Consequently, it should do its business in the full light of day.
But for those who haven't been paying attention, that's not what's been happening in recent years.
First and foremost, there is its quixotic battle with the Ferndale Enterprise newspaper, which defies any reasonable explanation.
You see, the association's current lease agreement notes that "all books, records and documents" pertaining to the management of the fairgrounds "shall be preserved by the association and be and remain public records." That seems pretty straightforward.
But five times dating back to 2015 the association has refused to turn over public records — including meeting minutes, financial records and an audit — requested by the Enterprise. These refusals have spawned four lawsuits — one resulting in a judge awarding the Enterprise's attorney $44,000 and two others ending with $31,000 in combined settlement payments. (A motion for attorney's fees in the fourth suit remains pending and the Enterprise reports the association has spent more than $17,000 fighting the records requests and associated lawsuits over the last year.)
But there's more and the issues run deeper than attempts to deny a plucky weekly newspaper access to public records. Over the past couple of years, Ferndale has seen repeated dust ups over the types of events held at the fairgrounds, with the association facing substantial backlash — and a threatened lawsuit — over its efforts to hold a cannabis festival and flat-track motorcycle races at the county-owned property, and a perceived lack of transparency about the planning of such events.
It's time for the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors to put a stop to this madness and the fix is simple: If the association wants to keep governing the use of 65 acres of county property and putting on the annual fair, it should be required to follow state open meeting and records laws. Otherwise, the association seems destined to keep pissing away its limited funds — a portion of which come from state taxpayers — and community goodwill in an effort to avoid transparency while simultaneously making decisions behind closed doors that rile its neighbors and leave it vulnerable to lawsuits.
Put simply, the board of supervisors needs to step in and protect the Humboldt County Fair Association Board of Directors from itself. It has sadly shown itself incapable and, if allowed to continue, we fear what that may ultimately mean for the prized institution — the fair itself — that the association has been entrusted to maintain.
Editor's note: In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that Paul Nicholas Boylan, the attorney representing the Enterprise in its lawsuits against the Humboldt County Fair Association, has also represented the Journal.
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.