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New Fairgrounds Lease Leaves the Public in the Dark



In case you missed it, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors decided Oct. 16 that you don't get to have input into how the county fairgrounds are operated or how public funds are spent to maintain them.

The board voted 4-1, with Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson dissenting, to approve an eight-year lease with the Humboldt County Fair Association to put on the county fair and manage the 65-acre fairgrounds located in the city of Ferndale. But in approving the lease, the board declined to include a provision that would have made the association abide by state open meeting laws and the California Public Records Act. In explaining the change, County Counsel Jeff Blanck said the lease will require the association to turn over its financial records, with the financial health of the fair being the county's primary concern.

We think this isn't good enough and that four-fifths of the board has made a tremendous error in judgment.

Imagine for a moment that the California Department of Parks and Recreation handed over management of Humboldt Redwoods State Park to a nonprofit, giving it complete control over its 53,000 acres, its more than 100 miles of trails and 250 campsites. But the nonprofit wouldn't be required to hold open meetings to discuss park maintenance, how much it would charge to rent out those campsites or what type of special events the park would host.

Or imagine that the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District decided it should just lease out management of Woodley Island Marina to a nonprofit without any requirement that it hold public meetings, create a public record of its decisions or take input into how public funds are being spent to maintain a public facility.

Pretty unimaginable, right?

But that's just what the county did in Ferndale, giving the association control over a 65-acre public property and a community institution without any requirement that it make decisions in the light of day.

Let's take a quick minute here to talk about the Ferndale Enterprise. The supervisors' decision isn't really about the Cream City's plucky weekly but Board Chair and Fifth District Sueprvisor Ryan Sundberg said it's "almost a shame that (the association is) getting bullied by a local newspaper," so that seems worth addressing.

By "bullying," we can only assume Sundberg means the Enterprise's repeatedly taking the association to court to force it to abide by the terms of its last lease with the county. A judge ruled in the Enterprise's favor in one of those suits and the association quickly settled two others, agreeing to turn over the requested documents as required by law.

But again, this shouldn't be about the Enterprise. It should be about good government.

Fair Association Executive Director Richard Conway appeared at the supervisors' Oct. 16 meeting and stressed that the association's meetings are open to the public and lamented the fact that few people show up and the board doesn't get more community participation.

Our interest piqued, we went to the association's website. We clicked on the "participate" tab, figuring that must be where the association posted its meeting agendas and invited public input. Nope, turns out it's just where you can enter an exhibit for the fair, learn about its contests, find a job application or become a vendor or sponsor. We moved on and clicked on the "calendar" tab, figuring the association probably would put its board meetings on its online calendars, right? Nope. Other than the fair itself, the association doesn't seem to have anything on its online calendars.

And that's the thing. If the association were forced to abide by California's Ralph M. Brown Act, it would have to post its meeting agendas in advance so the public could, you know, get an idea of what's up for discussion and actually make plans to attend, provide input and "participate." It would force the association board to discuss most of its business — save for personnel matters, litigation and some contract negotiations — in public, so folks could weigh in on maintenance plans and whether the fairgrounds should host motorcycle races, concerts and cannabis festivals, to name a few.

We've quoted it here before but fear our board of supervisors needs to see it again. The preamble of the California Public Records Act succinctly states: "The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist they may retain control over the institutions they have created."

Make no mistake, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors just decided it isn't good for you to know exactly what the association is doing on 65 acres of property that you own, and it just ceded control of one of the institutions you created to an association that will exercise that control behind closed doors.

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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