Still putting up fair holiday lights, Dave Kegebein talks about his stunning firing — and future plans

Dave Kegebein, former CEO of the Santa Cruz County Fair
Dave Kegebein, former CEO of the Santa Cruz County Fair.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I don’t want people to think I was trying to steal from the fairgrounds,” Dave Kegebein says in a Q&A in the wake of his October ouster as head of the Santa Cruz County Fair. “It’s the loss of focus on the big picture, which is sometimes astounding.”

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A Q&A with former Santa Cruz County Fair CEO Dave Kegebein

On Oct. 4, David Kegebein, CEO of the Santa Cruz County Fair for the past 11 years, was fired by the fair’s board of directors, under pressure from officials of the California Department of Food & Agriculture. Kegebein’s dismissal came in the wake of a compliance audit conducted by CDFA, the controlling agency for all the state’s county fairs. That audit charged Kegebein with, among other things, ignoring or disregarding state regulations in accounting for his spending while he served as the fair’s CEO, including unauthorized charges for gasoline and other automobile-related expenses.

Since Kegebein’s firing — and the subsequent replacement of the only two board members who voted against the firing — many fair volunteers and others in the community have come forward in support of Kegebein. They have blasted both CDFA and the board for the decision, which has thrown the fair’s leadership into chaos.

Tuesday’s meeting of the Santa Cruz County Fair board of directors drew more than 70 people, many of whom decried the...

At the first board meeting since his dismissal on Oct. 25, Kegebein himself showed up to accuse board chair Don Dietrich and other board members of personal use of the fair’s property, and to present a check for the amount that the audit report claimed he had spent for use of his personal vehicle.

Lookout had a chance to chat with Dave Kegebein, 65, who literally grew up at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds in an era when his father, John Kegebein, was the fair’s main maintenance man and director. We asked him about the outpouring of support he’s received since his firing, what he’s planning for his life and his relationship with the fair going forward, and what if anything he might have done differently.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lookout: What’s it been like in the past few weeks to experience the support you’ve received from the community?

Dave Kegebein: It’s humbling for sure, and appreciated — tremendously appreciated. I don’t want to say it’s been surprising, but it is somewhat surprising. I think a lot of it is the expression of people who are just astounded by how quickly — after years and years and years to build these respectable organizations — how quickly it can be destroyed. It is just stunning, and disgusting.

For the last year or so, I’ve been telling people, “Hey, you really need to get more involved in your fairgrounds and see what’s happening here.” And naturally, because things were — well, certainly the perception in public was things were going well, we’re running an outstanding enterprise that was really just serving the community, people become sort of complacent.

Lookout: Well, complacency doesn’t seem to be an issue now. At the Oct. 25 board meeting at the fairgrounds, you spoke before the board and said that you had brought with you a check for more than $33,000 that the audit had said you had spent without proper authorization. Did you present that check to the board? Did they accept it?

Kegebein: Well, I presented it, and I assume they’ll deposit it. This has never been about the money. I mean, I am not lying when I say I’ve put hundreds of thousands of dollars into this fairgrounds. I’m not exaggerating one bit. So it’s certainly not about whether or not I should have some kind of self-driving truck that doesn’t require fuel.

Dave Kegebein, former CEO of the Santa Cruz County Fair
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

This has nothing to do with a little bit of money. This has to do with power and control. My mileage reimbursements would have been in excess of $100,000. The interesting thing about the state system and their compensation is that they set 58 cents a mile as compensation for the use of your personal vehicle, and the trucks that I drive to do the work that I do cost more than a dollar a mile to operate. So whether I kept track of mileage or whether they bought me fuel, I just don’t want that to be an argument. And I don’t want people to think I was trying to steal from the fairgrounds. It’s the loss of focus on the big picture, which is sometimes astounding. But I think that’s often the case in government, there’s no ability to focus on the big picture.

Lookout: Are you considering legal action against the state?

Kegebein: Oh, absolutely. I’m already getting calls from people offering to pay the legal bills.

Lookout: Like a wrongful termination suit? Or is that overstating it?

Kegebein: We’ll see. It takes a lot of research beforehand. So, I don’t know if it’ll be a wrongful termination case. I mean, lots of people have suggested that. I certainly have [a case]. OK, so I used the debit card to put fuel in my truck. I never hid that from anyone. Now, the fact that fair board members didn’t review those receipts … I mean, this is the problem with the [state] system. These are political appointments and fair board members don’t need any qualifications. It’s all strictly politics.

Lookout: After your ouster, board members Loretta Estrada and Jody Belgard, who voted against your firing, were replaced by the CDFA. Do you think that was in retaliation to their vote?

Kegebein: Oh, absolutely. That was 100% retaliatory. There’s no gray area there whatsoever.

Lookout: The fair has the Holiday Lights show coming up, opening on Nov. 25. Your fingerprints have been all over that particular event in the past. What is your relationship with the fair going to be moving forward? Would you be willing to be just a volunteer to help out people you know and who you’ve had relationships with going back years? Or is that something you’re not ready to do now?

Kegebein: Well, I spent the last two days out there helping put up the holiday lights, so …

Lookout: Well, that answers that question.

Dave Kegebein, former CEO of the Santa Cruz County Fair
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Kegebein: The Holiday Lights show is a partnership between the Fairgrounds Foundation and the Agricultural History Project. And no matter what happens, how all this sorts out, I’ll still be a very dedicated volunteer for the Ag History Project. Yes, this is about leadership, but it’s also about committed, dedicated people. I didn’t do any of this stuff by myself. With Holiday Lights, yeah, I brought a concept and I brought the leadership and I developed a huge team. And I certainly want to see that continue to succeed and thrive.

Lookout: If you knew then what you know now about how the state reacted to the audit, would you have been more attentive to the paperwork issues, or done anything else differently?

Kegebein: I’ve distributed my response to their audit to the entire fair community, so that hopefully, people can learn from this. If there was anything I would have done different [it would be] when this auditor showed up, I would’ve just shut the fairgrounds down, stopped everything and put 100% of my focus into this whole process. But instead, we were trying to run a day-to-day operation with a super small staff, put on the best fair ever, and [at the same time] argue with this auditor constantly, and for months and months and months. I mean, half of what he’s got in [the audit] is stuff that we could have answered. If he would just ask the questions. And so we were not focused enough on the audit. We were focused on trying to keep the fairgrounds serving the community and we dealt with this audit as a sideshow.

Lookout: You mentioned that you still want to be a volunteer with the Ag History Project. What else are you going to do with your life? Have you made any plans?

Kegebein: That’s a really good question. I’m not interested in just sitting around doing nothing. I’m retirement age. But hell, when I feel sick and I sit in my chair for a day, I’m just disgusted with myself that I wasted a day. So I’ve thought well, my next chapter, maybe I want to get a job that’s less stressful, something easier to do. I wouldn’t mind doing some kind of work where I travel more. I love small-town America and traveling around the country. So, I’ve thought about a couple of different opportunities that would involve some travel. But I have in the back of my mind — it’s getting kind of a stronger feeling every day — about creating some new agritourism facility in the Pajaro Valley. That’s one of the real weaknesses of the Ag History Project is that it’s dependent on donations and sponsors and donors and that sort of thing to keep it alive.

I think that there needs to be a business component that generates revenue that creates long-term sustainability. I keep asking myself that at my age if I want to start something new from scratch. Because I’ve done it, and I know how much work it is, and how hard it is. But at the same time, I gotta have something to do. And so I have in mind, this sort of agritourism planning thing that combines the whole Ag History Project, living history, and farm education, with some business opportunity that creates cash flow and makes it more sustainable than just relying on donors. So that’s one of the things that’s been rambling around in my head.

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