Tuesday’s meeting of the Santa Cruz County Fair board of directors drew more than 70 people, many of whom decried the state-driven termination of the fair’s longtime CEO. “What is the role of the governor and the CDFA in taking control of the Santa Cruz County Fair?” asked Dennis Osmer, former Watsonville mayor, as talk of reprisal hung in the air.
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Fireworks are usually not allowed at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds. Apparently, that doesn’t apply to board meetings.
On Tuesday, the county fair’s board of directors met at the fairgrounds for the first time since it voted 7-2 to terminate its longtime CEO, Dave Kegebein, at a specially scheduled meeting on Oct. 4. Kegebein was dismissed in the wake of a report of a compliance audit conducted by the California Department of Food & Agriculture (CDFA). That audit claimed Kegebein had not complied with state regulations in accounting for expenses charged to his state-issued debit card, among other wrongdoings. Kegebein’s supporters, who showed up in force at the meeting, charge that the board acted to fire Kegebein only at the behest of the CDFA.
Kegebein himself showed up to the meeting early, handing out copies of the CDFA audit, annotated with his response to the charges. And he was the first to take the podium in the public comments portion.
Board chair Don Dietrich presided over a board that had lost three of its nine members since the Oct. 4 meeting. Two of those members had been fired last Friday via Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office, in what they believe is a retaliation for their votes opposing Kegebein’s firing. They have been replaced by new board members appointed by the governor’s office; one was absent Tuesday, and the other was observing, but not voting, via Zoom.
Kegebein, who had run the fair for 11 years before his dismissal, declared that he had brought along a check for $33,582, the amount the CDFA report said he had improperly used to purchase gasoline for his personal vehicle. He then charged board chair Dietrich with using parts of the fairgrounds shop building for his personal use. When he finished, the room, which numbered about 70 people, erupted in applause. Many had come to express their anger and dismay at Kegebein’s removal as the fair’s director.
After the surprising ouster of 11-year CEO Dave Kegebein earlier this month, the two board members who opposed the...
Among the many others who spoke in his support were former board member and chair Dave Cavanaugh, recently replaced board member Loretta Estrada, former Watsonville mayor Dennis Osmer and former Watsonville City Council member Trina Coffman-Gomez. They, along with about another dozen speakers in total, were critical of the board’s Oct. 4’s action to fire Kegebein.
Estrada, one of two dissenting voters on Kegebein’s firing who herself was terminated from her board position two weeks later, gestured at the board, saying, “[you] are almost a disgrace to the Santa Cruz County Fair.”
“I can’t imagine a world where personal sacrifice for the better good was met with such insensitivity,” said Cavanaugh.
Coffman-Gomez said she had been a part of several boards in her career, but “I’ve never seen a lack of transparency of a public and community organization as I’ve seen here.”
Additional speakers launched into blistering attacks on the decision to fire Kegebein, many praising Kegebein’s tenure as CEO and evoking a time before Kegebein when the fair was cash-strapped and facing bankruptcy.
A single contrary voice came from Aptos activist Becky Steinbruner, who made it clear she supported the decision to fire Kegebein. Board chair Dietrich had to admonish the crowd when derisive laughter erupted while Steinbruner was speaking. Steinbruner responded to another speaker who had cited what he said was a “vendetta” she had against Kegebein. Steinbruner replied that she filed a public records act with the state “because that was our only choice. We would come here and ask for information and we were treated poorly by Mr. Kegebein.”
The two-plus-hour meeting often seemed to be a running dialogue between Steinbruner and Osmer, both of whom spoke to opposite sides of the Kegebein drama. Osmer, in fact, raised the specter of bad faith on the part of the CDFA and the governor’s office.
“What is the role of the governor and the CDFA in taking control of the Santa Cruz County Fair?” Osmer asked, eliciting a round of applause.
Greg Estrada, the son of ousted board member Loretta Estrada, suggested that the state’s goal was to convert the fairgrounds into “resiliency centers” to combat homelessness: “That’s what’s coming. So when they offer up to you $2 million to make repairs to your facility, be sure to read the fine print. Otherwise, your hands will be tied.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Lookout asked the California State Department of Food and Agriculture to respond to that conversion possibility.
Jay Van Rein, public relations officer for the department, said there is no wider state program aimed at turning county fairgrounds into homeless shelters. However, Van Rein said the CDFA is involved with the Fairground and Community Resilience Centers Program, a new statewide program aimed at enhancing county fairgrounds’ emergency preparedness capabilities, particularly in response to climate change. In the aftermath of the 2020 CZU fires, the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds offered shelter to the victims.
Further, Van Rein said via email, the program is not focused on homelessness nor is it focused exclusively on county fairgrounds.
Funding for that program “will be used to support infrastructure for emergency evacuation, shelter, base camps during emergency events and critical deferred maintenance,” according to a CDFA summary. “Elements for this infrastructure may include cooling and heating centers, clean air centers and extended emergency evacuation response centers with community kitchens, shower facilities, broadband, backup power and other community needs due to wildfires, floods and other emergencies or climate events.”
Yet another speaker at Tuesday’s board meeting, meanwhile, suggested that the Oct. 4 meeting at which Kegebein was fired might have violated the Brown Act, California’s open-meetings law.
Crisis at the fair
The firing of Kegebein after the CDFA audit has brought the fair board to a crisis. After receiving a phone call Friday afternoon from the governor’s office informing her that she was being replaced on the board, Loretta Estrada formalized her departure, sending a letter of resignation to Newsom. In it, she protested the dismissal of Kegebein, writing that the former fair CEO “does not have a dishonest bone in his body.”
Asked if she felt that her dismissal from the board, along with that of Jody Belgard, who also had voted against the firing, was in retaliation for her vote, Estrada didn’t hesitate. “Sure,” she said. “Everyone on that board was termed out, except for one person. And Jody and I were the only ones who voted not to fire Dave, and then we got fired. Read between the lines.”
Estrada, who served for 34 years as a fair board member, was also insulted, she said, by how she was informed: “The whole thing has been a slap in my face, especially when that lady [from the governor’s office] didn’t say thank you, or even goodbye. She just hung up. I think it shocked me more than anything else.”
Also gone from the board is Bill Barton, who resigned shortly after the Oct. 4 meeting. Barton, who had served on the board since 2015, voted in the majority of the 7-2 decision to dismiss Kegebein. Of the controversial meeting in which state representatives were accompanied by uniformed law-enforcement agents from the California Highway Patrol and Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, Barton said, “I think there was some intimidation in that meeting, reflecting the state representatives calling the special meeting, providing the audit report at the the last legal minute, and bringing the accompanying law-enforcement agents. What were we to think? There was no choice in the matter.”
Saying that he “tends to view the world in shades of gray,” Barton was still clearly ambivalent about his vote on Kegebein’s firing. “Maybe I did the right thing,” he said, “but then I thought afterward, maybe I made the wrong choice. But, as you can see, it wouldn’t have made a difference. Instead of resigning, they would have basically replaced me. I’m still going to strongly support the fairgrounds. I just can’t do it in the form of being on the board.”
Also resigning this week was the fair board’s recording secretary Mary Bannister. She had served as a volunteer since 2010, and was part of the group Kegebein had put together when he was first brought on as the fair’s CEO. In her resignation letter, Bannister said that the Kegebein’s firing and the abrupt replacement of board members Belgard and Estrada “leaves me no choice” but to resign. “The state of California all but abandoned the [county fairs] a decade ago,” she said. “We were able to succeed when they had no interest and now they step in and create chaos. Why?”
Kegebein responded to the state’s audit report with a meticulous point-by-point defense of the charges. He also leveled some accusations at Dietrich, calling the audit a “10-month witch hunt to remove me as CEO,” and suggested that Dietrich has been using fair facilities for personal use for several years, a point Kegebein said was not mentioned in the audit.
For his part, Dietrich declined to comment on Kegebein’s charges against him, promising to address them specifically at the board’s next meeting, set for Dec. 6 according to Tuesday’s agenda. Taking notes himself because the board’s recording secretary had resigned, Dietrich struggled to keep the meeting going while taking minutes and managing the crowd.
Among the agenda items on the meeting was one to appoint Dietrich as the fair’s interim CEO. As board chair, he was next in line given the vacancy. Clearly, Dietrich did not want to take on the job. “I’d be happy if any of you would do it rather than me,” he told the other board members.
In the end, the board voted to appoint Dietrich as interim CEO, but also agreed to prod the state to send a list of experienced fair directors to consider for the interim job. It was a suggestion offered in public comment by none other than Kegebein.
Perhaps, not noting the irony considering that the two men have become antagonists in this unfolding drama, Dietrich said, “Dave has a great idea.”