Quick Take:

Only two members of the Santa Cruz County Fair board voted against the October termination of CEO Dave Kegebein. Two weeks later, each received terse phone calls from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office, telling them their terms — 34 years and 16 years, respectively — were over. At this point, the state won’t respond to the charges of retaliation.

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On Friday afternoon, Oct. 21, Loretta Estrada received a phone call from the office of California Gov. Gavin Newsom. By her reckoning, the call lasted maybe about a minute.

At the time, Estrada was a member of the board of directors of the Santa Cruz County Fair, which is controlled and managed by the state through the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). Two weeks earlier, on Oct. 4, the fair board had voted to dismiss the fair’s CEO, Dave Kegebein, after a CDFA compliance audit found that Kegebein had ignored or disregarded state regulations in accounting for spending while he ran the fair.

The call that Friday afternoon was to inform Estrada that she was being replaced on the board.

“They didn’t even say, ‘Thank you for your years of service,’ or anything like that,” said Estrada who had served for 34 years on the board. “They just said the governor is going in a different direction and hung up. They didn’t even say goodbye.”

Estrada was one of only two of the board’s nine members to vote against Kegebein’s dismissal. Jody Belgard, the other board member who voted against Kegebein’s firing, received a similar phone call the same day.

Estrada said she believes her replacement on the board was in retaliation for her vote. Kegebein, the ousted CEO, believes the same thing. When asked about the decision, Kegebein said, “That was 100% retaliatory. There’s no gray area there whatsoever.”

As the board proceeds to hire a replacement for Kegebein, the question remains: Were Estrada and Belgard replaced because of their vote defending Kegebein?

That answer is elusive. Lookout’s efforts to ask both the CDFA and Newsom’s office have yielded little answer to that question so far.

To be clear, Estrada and Belgard were both serving on expired terms, But, said Estrada and Kegebein, all but one of the other board members who voted on Kegebein’s dismissal were also serving on expired terms.

Lookout contacted both CDFA and the governor’s office about the charges of retaliation.

When asked about the replacement of Estrada and Belgard on the fair board, Steve Lyle, the director of public affairs at CDFA, would say in an email only that “Appointments are handled by the governor’s office. Please contact them.”

Former fair board member Loretta Estrada speaks to the county fair board
Credit: Thomas Sawano / Lookout Santa Cruz

To both phone and email inquiries, Newsom’s press office responded just by email and acknowledged that Estrada and Belgard had been replaced, but added only, “we’re not able to comment further on personnel matters.”

David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a Bay Area public and press right-to-know group, said the governor has limited privilege in choosing not to disclose details when it comes to personnel matters. “There are some personnel matters that are mandatorily confidential,” said Snyder. “However, other information they are required to disclose.”

Snyder said that state officials are under no obligation to talk. “They don’t have any legal mandate to answer questions from reporters or from the public,” said Snyder. “I think as a matter of best practice, it’s always better for government agencies, including the governor, to be as transparent as possible. But it’s within their discretion to decline to answer questions.”

However, he said, California state officials are obligated to produce any pertinent written records under the state’s Public Records Act. That law contains some exemptions for the governor to withhold records. Such exemptions include correspondence to and from the governor, as well as any material in the custody of the governor’s legal affairs secretary (though the law forbids the transfer of material to the legal affairs secretary to evade disclosure).

But, said Snyder, “they would be required to respond to record requests by explaining why they think they don’t have to release records. They would have to point you to an exemption that allows them to withhold them.”

Lookout has officially requested records and documentation regarding the replacement of Estrada and Belgard on the board under the Public Records Act, making requests to the CDFA and to Newsom.

Within the fair community, a number of volunteers and community members are also working together to get answers from the state regarding the dismissal of Kegebein. The group is planning to submit a request to state Sen. Anna Caballero and state Assemblymember Robert Rivas (recently elected the next speaker of the Assembly) for a formal investigation into the “unjustified termination” of Kegebein and for a special meeting with representatives from CDFA.

Wallace reports and writes not only across his familiar areas of deep interest — including arts, entertainment and culture — but also is chronicling for Lookout the challenges the people of Santa Cruz...