Fairgrounds’ future looks fraught — lies, deception and personal vendettas are poisoning beloved institution

Scenes from the 2022 Santa Cruz County Fair
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Longtime journalist Jon Chown says he has never seen as much overt lying, deception and personal attacks as went on at the Feb. 28 meeting of the Santa Cruz County Fair board of directors. He argues that the whole house needs sweeping or the fair risks disappearing.

As a news reporter, I attended Santa Cruz County Fair board of directors meetings for many years, sometimes covering scandalous fair managers and scarce finances. What I saw recently at the Feb. 28 fair board meeting, however, was disturbing on a level I’d never before have imagined.

The first thing I noticed were the lies: Board president Don Dietrich committed public slander, accusing former fair manager Dave Kegebein of theft without any evidence. In fact, the evidence overwhelmingly shows the opposite, which was pointed out by Dennis Osmer (former mayor of Watsonville and Santa Cruz County planning commissioner) during public comment. Dietrich then went on to show how personal his beef was with his target by offering to resign from the board if Kegebein promised to never step foot on the fairgrounds again.

The rest of the board remained silent as all this went on.

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)

They also remained silent while community members Becky Steinbruner and Jessica Ayala, sitting up front, would seemingly make up whatever mistruth popped into their heads during public comment — from making up new parking restrictions that people they didn’t like were breaking to baselessly accusing local nonprofits and individuals of stealing. One really wild accusation they made was that Kegebein somehow canceled the liquor license owned by the fairgrounds’ raceway promoter.

I guess he somehow controls the state department of Alcoholic Beverage Control? Or maybe he did it with space lasers? Even the promoter would shoot this accusation down later.

The next thing was the secrecy — and the poorly answered questions. Board members would ask Dietrich questions and would get only misdirection as the answer.

Don Dietrich, Santa Cruz County Fair board director.

When discussing a proposal to raise rates significantly, fair director Nicolas Calubaquib asked, more than once, what spurred the proposed increase in rental rates. Are we overbooked? Are costs causing this dramatic rise? What is it?

Dietrich just changed the subject. When asked another time, he talked about the need for a new rate schedule that was set and even for everybody — that this would eliminate any appearance of “backroom deals,” which we will discuss more later.

This still evaded the question of why the board would need to raise the rates, but at least it was a response.

Members of the public questioned why the board was proposing a special government rate of about half the normal rate, and why nonprofits — some that had donated tens of thousands of dollars to the fairgrounds — weren’t being offered any break. Nobody got any answers.

The board eventually voted on a proposal that would set rates for nonprofits as the same for government agencies, but that failed, and the whole issue will return next month.

Of course, next month, we will likely see that somehow this board will have resolved the issue, outside of public view and also outside of what is legal.

It’s hard to really know what is entirely going on with the board because the state has taken it over, firing anybody from the community who was trusted, replacing them with people who are seemingly unaware of the fairgrounds’ history, its usage and the community it serves.

And somehow, according to Lookout reporting, the state has no written record of how any of these decisions were made. There was no email or written communication about any of this. If that is actually true, it could only be for reasons that are not legitimate.

Speaking of “backroom deals” and avoiding the appearance of them, after the failed vote on the new rate schedule, Dietrich unveiled the actual backroom deal he made with raceway promoter John Prentice. Disposing of any opportunity for the public to bid on the opportunity, Dietrich led the board into approving his new deal with the raceway.

The Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds is in trouble.

Scenes from the 2022 Santa Cruz County Fair
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Events that have taken place there for years are leaving or are struggling to understand how they might stay. A quilting group that held an event over the weekend showed up at the meeting to complain about a complete lack of service. They even struggled to access the bathrooms they had rented as part of the hall rentals. The local chapter of Burning Man, unSCruz, has moved its event to San Benito County.

Maybe the local fair will have to be held there, too?

Fair department heads are in the dark about what is going on. Correspondence from the amateur wine division’s chair, Debbie Yakulis, had some important questions for the fairgrounds management: “When will we receive any funding? I need to book a caterer for the judging event and found out that food costs have increased significantly so I need to know if we will continue the same system as before? … Who is in charge of ordering ribbons and plaques?”

There are a lot of questions the public has of this board and fairgrounds management, but they don’t get answered.

One thing that is clear to me is that Dietrich needs to step away from the board, as he offered to do, but without any preconditions. A board president who so clearly has a private vendetta against a community member and displays it so boldly during a meeting needs to step aside.

He also puts the board in legal jeopardy. Kegebein is not a public official. The state audit pointedly did not accuse Kegebein of any crimes, because there wasn’t evidence of such. Dietrich’s animus is clear and so was the slander.

Jon Chown was the editor-in-chief of the Register-Pajaronian in Watsonville from 2000 to 2011 and has helped the fairgrounds and associated entities with various public relations services since. He lives in Marina.

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