UPDATE, AUG. 18, 5:04 P.M.: If Nick Berardino's intention was to stir shit up around the Orange County Fairgrounds, he's officially succeeded.
Now that the OC Fair is over, the focus has returned to the fate of the fairgrounds—a now two-year struggle–emerging from a three-week hibernation. And already, the heavy-hitters are sparring.
Jeff Teller, the president of TelPhil Enterprises, which operates the OC Marketplace, contacted the Weekly, taking time away from a family vacation in Alaska to comment on Berardino's proposals and David Ellis' responses to those proposals.
“As my grandfather used to tell me, 'An honest man doesn't ask to be trusted,'” said Teller, in regard to Ellis' letter to Berardino (see previous Update) essentially dismissing the suggestions for a forensic audit of OCFEC dealings and the creation of a Citizen's Oversight Committee. “It's appalling that a public agency is pushing back when its members are asking questions. Why? What do they have to hide?”
Teller went on to quote Ronald Reagan, a highly-popular Republican figure around OC, as evidence for why transparency is necessary regardless of trust: “Trust, but verify.”
Ellis and Teller don't see eye-to-eye on most anything related to the fairgrounds. Ellis likes to indicate that Teller runs a failing business, the OC Marketplace, while Teller points out Ellis' dictatorial control over the Fair Board.
“Mr. Ellis really doesn't understand much about business, he's a career consultant, he's never run a business,” Teller said. “The Dow is down 400 points, foreign markets have been in a tailspin the last 36 months. The problem is not unique and indigenous to the Marketplace; he just has to drive around and see the empty storefronts.”
Costa Mesa's mayor, Gary Monahan, has also inserted himself in fairgrounds matters as it relates to Berardino. Monahan filed a complaint with the OC District Attorney's office, according to the Daily Pilot, claiming that Berardino's letter to fellow Fair Board members on Aug. 4 was a violation of the state's open-meeting laws.
Much like the Ellis/Teller relationship, Berardino and Monahan also don't see eye-to-eye on most matters. Berardino is the general manager of the OC Employees' Association which engaged the Costa Mesa city council when the five-man council voted in favor of delivering 200-plus layoff notices to city employees in March. The day the notices went out a city employee committed suicide, jumping from the roof of City Hall. Berardino arrived at Monahan's place of business, Skosh Monahan's, after the incident and took a photo with his phone of Monahan, who was out front wearing a green and white St. Patrick's Day costume. Hence, the ire.
UPDATE, AUG. 16, 4:12 P.M.: Nick Berardino is firm in his belief that the only way for the OC Fair & Event Center board of directors to move forward from its involvement in the state's highly-controversial process to sell the fairgrounds (which is now off the table) is to do so in a transparent manner. That's why he made the pair of suggestions that he did: a forensic audit of OCFEC operations over the past three years and a Citizen's Oversight Committee for future decision-making.
As he mentioned in his August 4th letter, Berardino was hoping to discuss the suggestions at the first board meeting since he was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, next week, on August 25th.
That won't be happening.
On Monday, Berardino received a detailed email from David Ellis, the chairman of OCFEC, explaining his decision not to place either of the two items on the meeting's agenda.
Ellis pointed out that the 32nd Agricultural District, or OCFEC, is annually audited by the California Department of Food & Agriculture and provided Berardino with the audits from 2007, 2008, and 2009. He noted that the 2010 audit is “in draft form and is under review from staff.” Ellis wrote, “…if there was a problem the Dept. of Food & [Agriculture] would have found it and dug deeper. They haven't.”
In regard to the citizen committee, Ellis was slightly more contentious, pointing out that many of the groups Berardino suggested including on the committee “are funded or are influenced by TelPhil Enterprises – a struggling tenant on the property.” Ellis continued his disapproval of collaborating with TelPhil, saying that he does not “support providing a platform for a struggling tenant that is only motivated by their self-interest” and that, instead, TelPhil “should spend more time re-tooling their broken business model, not complaining about the board for their struggles.” Ellis provided a 10-year revenue report for TelPhil that indicates the company is in a “10-year decline.”
Jeff Teller of TelPhil Enterprises could not be reached for comment for this story.
When Ellis spoke with the Weekly, he echoed his sentiment that the board and the suggested groups to include on the committee–many of the parties that comprise the OC Fairgrounds Preservation Society–could never co-exist peacefully on a committee. “These parties will always second-guess the board because they're trying to protect their sweetheart deals,” said Ellis, alluding to the tenant agreements which he has repeatedly expressed aren't in the best interest of OCFEC.
Ellis also pointed out that the board and OCFEC has been rather transparent, responding to the “numerous” Public Records Act requests of the Preservation Society.
In a subsequent email to Berardino, Ellis pointed out that there is a process in place for Berardino to have his two suggestions added to the September meeting's agenda. He could bring up the two items during the time for board member comments and if the items were seconded, and five fellow board members also voted in favor, they could be added to the September agenda.
UPDATE, AUG. 9, 12:22 P.M.: “As I read more and more newspaper reports and investigative reports, reviewed more documents and talked to more people in the community, I realized we really need, in order to move forward, we have definitely got to get some buy-in from the community,” said Nick Berardino, of his suggestions to the Fair Board of a forensic audit and a Citizen's Oversight Committee. “Clearly, it appears that among a lot of the stakeholders there was a great deal of suspicion, lingering doubts about what's taken place, and enough concerns that are going to make it difficult to move forward unless we go back and dig through it all, issue a report, including one from the stakeholders, in order to go forward in a collaborative and positive manner. This would be a good start.”
As of this afternoon, Berardino said he had not received any response from his fellow board members. The letter was sent on Aug. 4 and addressed to the board's chairman, David Ellis, and Steve Beazley, the President and CEO of OCFEC.
“It's important that we issue a forensic audit that will go through, in great detail, what money is there, what's been spent, who it's been paid to, and I think that will set aside reservations from a lot of members of the community,” Berardino said. “It's the only way to allow a fresh start. Otherwise we're trying to rebuild on a shakey foundation. We need that transparency about everything that went on and why we did it.”
UPDATE, AUG. 8, 5:52 P.M.: As the final days of the OC Fair peel away from the event calendar, the reconvening of the OC Fair & Event Center board of directors grows closer. Nick Berardino, one of the two new members of the board, isn't wasting any time in making his presence on the board known. On Aug. 4 he sent a letter to his fellow Fair Board members, suggesting two topics of discussion at the next meeting: a forensic audit of all OCFEC operations over the past three years and the addition of a Citizen's Oversight Committee.
The Fair Board is scheduled to meet on Aug. 25, but the agenda is not yet prepared. David Ellis, the chairman of the Fair Board, said he has not yet had an opportunity to speak with Steve Beazley, the President and CEO of OCFEC, to discuss adding Berardino's requests to the agenda.
According to the letter, Berardino wants the committee to “investigate and issue a public report regarding the proposed sale of the fairgrounds.” His suggestion is that the committee include representatives from the OC Fairgrounds Preservation Society, the Equestrian Center, Market Place vendors, the OC Business Council, executive members of OCFEC, along with “bargaining unit representatives.”
Berardino did not return messages for further comment about his suggestions.
Ellis indicated that the Aug. 25 meeting already has a pretty full docket, with a recap of the OC Fair, along with a presentation to discuss whether or not to make “A Fair to Remember” an annual event. A Fair to Remember took place the day before the Fair opened, and welcomed 8,200 foster children to experience the Fair free of charge.
ORIGINAL POST, AUG. 2, 3:09 P.M.: The largely unpopular two-year process to sell the Orange County Fairgrounds is at its end. In mid-July, days after Facilities Management West lost its appeal to uphold its initial winning bid, Governor Jerry Brown and the Department of General Services announced that the sale of the 150 acres of land was no longer an interest of the state.
The OC Fairgrounds Preservation Society, which has been a primary proponent for stopping the sale, is pleased with the governor's action–but that doesn't mean they're packing up their operation.
“We're going to stay the course,” said Theresa Sears, a member of OCFPS. “We're going to continue exploring what went on, finding the missing pieces to the puzzle. We want to be able to accurately tell the story of what happened, and why it happened.”
Sears said they hope some legal action may come about to bring closure to what was a questionable happening from the beginning. If there is any legal movement, it will be just part of the big picture as the state and board of directors of the OC Fair & Event Center move forward.
Nick Berardino, for one, doesn't intend to let past transgressions get brushed beneath the rug.
“My expectation is simple,” he said, “I think we need to move forward, but I think in this particular situation, given all the individuals and various groups involved we need to transparently divulge to the community everything that took place regarding the sale of the fairgrounds, the establishment of the non-profit, the role of all the individuals involved in it and really get all the facts out. I think that's the first step.
“A lot of folks will say just move forward,” he continued, “it's easy to say just go forward considering what took place, but with what some members of the community feel, we can't go forward. There's going to be a cloud of superstition for a very, very long time unless we put it all out there. Any time you have a situation that has received as much public attention as this has, and there's been a feeling that there's not enough public scrutiny that took place, it's a non-starter for moving forward.”
Berardino is one of two new appointees to the Fair Board. As if stepping into murky waters with the fairgrounds isn't enough of an undertaking, he's also been in the middle of the employee outsourcing dilemma in the city of Costa Mesa. Berardino is the general manager of the OC Employees Association. Gerardo Mouet, 53, of Santa Ana is the other appointee. He's worked with the city of Santa Ana since 1990.
“That's what keeps you young,” said Berardino, of adding Fair Board duties to his list of commitments. “I'm 63, so that's what keeps you going, keeps the blood pushing through the veins.”