Stop the inflammatory comments at county fair board meetings; let’s ‘right the fairgrounds ship’

The Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds in Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Misinformation is causing “the recent, inflammatory public behavior at the fair board meetings,” says longtime Santa Cruz County Fair volunteer Becky Steinbruner, who has attended meetings regularly since 2020. She insists new president Don Dietrich is doing a good job and has tough work to clean up years of neglect and lack of oversight. The fairgrounds has to follow state regulations, she writes — something she believes Dave Kegebein, the ousted fair manager and CEO, never did.

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How unfortunate that your good, local news platform has gone against your own policy and printed personal attacks in a recent opinion piece regarding the Santa Cruz County Fair board and members of the public. In the Lookout piece, the author accused people who have attended board meetings for years of “making up whatever mistruth popped into their heads” and “accusing local nonprofits and individuals of stealing.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The problem causing the recent, inflammatory public behavior at the fair board meetings is rooted in the fact that most of those complaining have never attended a fair board meeting until now. Many did not understand that the fairgrounds site is state property, and those who work there are state employees, and are required to follow rules and procedures.

As one who has been attending fair board meetings, I feel Don Dietrich, the board president, has done an excellent job. He was thrust into the job of interim fair manager to clean up many serious messes that Dave Kegebein never addressed when it was his job to do so.

For example, the Harvest Building has leaked for years, but never got fixed. Kegebein also never fixed the red-tagged kitchen in the Harvest Building. The heating, ventilating, and air conditioning system in the fairgrounds’ administration office has not worked for a very long time.

Dietrich’s work with fairgrounds staff to develop a facility rental policy and uniform pricing happened because it has long been evident that Kegebein gave certain groups and individuals rental deals that were not extended to everyone.

A likely reason the Burning Man Santa Cruz group is not returning to the fairgrounds is because of the many complaints by parents of the youth baseball teams practicing there at the time that there was so much public nudity and drug use going on at the fairgrounds. As the former fairgrounds manager arranging the rental contract with Burning Man, Kegebein allowed all that to happen.

Kegebein rarely sought board approval for projects. Instead, he obtained funding from the Fairgrounds Foundation to do his projects, such as wholesale removal of wooden pens, improper replacement of upright support posts and the addition of overhead timbers in the livestock barns. Of course, he always got whatever he wanted, because Jeannie Kegebein, Kegebein’s stepmother, is the director of the Fairgrounds Foundation.

No one questioned him.

His actions made clear he felt no need to follow the state requirements for prior engineering design approval or process. He also failed to involve the board.

It was this type of cavalier action that caused the California Construction Authority to deem the barns “unstable and unsafe” and, for safety reasons, refused to allow youth to exhibit their animals in them during the 2022 fair.

Former Santa Cruz County Fair CEO Dave Kegebein speaks at Tuesday's board meeting
Former Santa Cruz County Fair CEO Dave Kegebein speaks at an October meeting of the fair’s board of directors.
(Thomas Sawano / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The hazards had also existed during the 2021 fair, but because the state learned about what Kegebein had done only a few days before the opening of the fair, officials allowed the barns to be used under specific conditions, such as “immediate evacuation if wind speeds are over 30 mph” and the creation of wider exit pathways.

Kegebein kept all that information to himself. He did not make these important safety precautions known to any of the youth exhibitors, their parents or the livestock leaders. It was only via public-records requests by me and others that these issues became known.

Kegebein resented the requests and refused to answer our questions at board meetings. He attempted to focus public harassment our way by publishing a list of our names at the board meeting at which he was fired.

Kegebein’s answer to the state’s “unstable and unsafe” determination was to “demolish the barns.” He was ready to hop on that irrational action immediately, when some of the board members approved it, but was prevented from doing so by the state officials reminding him of his requirement to provide a plan for how the barns would be safely demolished.

Maybe you wondered why the youth had their livestock in portable pens beneath large tents at last year’s fair? That was a significant expense for one week’s exhibition space.

Further troubling is that disaster evacuees with livestock now have no place to bring their animals for emergency shelter.

In my opinion, the sad truth behind what is happening at the fairgrounds is that hardly anyone has ever dared to question what Kegebein did or was doing, just because his father, John Kegebein, had been there so long and helped pull the fairgrounds out of financial problems.

Now Dave Kegebein is actively goading the public into making continual angry accusations against the board, mostly directed at Dietrich, but the people have failed to question any of the information they are reacting to, with blind loyalty to the Kegebein name.

This is borne out in a Lookout Santa Cruz report quoting Kegebein’s email to supporters as, “See you at [Tuesday’s] board meeting, where I hope to provide entertainment.”

I urge people to read the state’s audit.

Would you trust an employee who was caught using your company credit card for unauthorized uses and could not back up the tens of thousands of dollars spent?

Becky Steinbruner has been attending fair board meetings regularly since 2020.
(Via Becky Steinbruner)

The audit illuminated unsettling issues around the Ocean Speedway tenant’s annual rent for its lease on the speedway. Without board approval, Kegebein named the Fairgrounds Foundation as the only servers of alcohol at all races, essentially stealing tens of thousands of dollars from the speedway profits and causing a former racetrack sponsor to cancel.

Kegebein attempted to change the fairgrounds alcohol sales policy to make that money grab legal, but was thwarted by the intervention of the state’s chief legal counsel. However, Kegebein continued to allow the Fairgrounds Foundation to sell all beer and control the beer sales profit reporting.

The Fairgrounds Foundation is not reporting alcohol sales to the IRS on its Form 990 nonprofit reports.

I am not making this up. This is not “whatever pops into my head,” as your recent opinion writer claims.

Facts are facts, as unpleasant as they sometimes are. The Kegebein fan club needs to read documents for themselves and do some independent critical thinking before reacting at the next fair board meeting.

Dietrich and the fair board are working hard to right the “fairgrounds ship” and deserve to be regarded with respect and civility.

Becky Steinbruner is a 38-year resident of rural Aptos. She has volunteered for decades at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds and in 4-H with her children. She has been attending fair board meetings regularly since 2020.

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