When things get tough, they call in the commissioner.
An embroiled board of trustees at the Jefferson County Fair Association is now being shepherded by Jefferson County Commissioner Kate …
When things get tough, they call in the commissioner.
An embroiled board of trustees at the Jefferson County Fair Association is now being shepherded by Jefferson County Commissioner Kate Dean.
At the latest public meeting of the fair association on Thursday, March 9, Dean held sway for the majority of the session.
“The county, as the landlord, is here to say we need reorganization,” Dean said. “If we’re not able to do, then we need to find a nonprofit to run this organization. But we want to work with this board.”
All of the Jefferson County commissioners technically hold a non-voting seat on the fair board as part of the county’s lease agreement with the nonprofit fair association, but none have actively engaged with the board in recent memory.
“The county doesn’t want to manage the fairgrounds. We have zero interest in that. We were done with that business a long time ago,” Dean said.
“But we do have a responsibility to have that accountability and transparency built in,” she added.
Dean was the only county commissioner at the previous meeting, but this time all three county commissioners were in attendance. Only Dean spoke, however, because if any of the others chimed in it would trigger a quorum that would have required prior public notice of the meeting.
Still, the message was clear.
“We’re all really invested in this conversation,” Dean said. “We’re here and we are fully engaging.”
To drive that point home, County Administrator Mark McCauley, who has years of experience running similar events, was also brought in.
“I was heavily engaged in the county fair down in Clark County. It was the best county fair in the state, I think, nine years in a row,” McCauley said.
Not only did he bring experience to the occasion, but also an offer of financial assistance.
“As part of this increase of county involvement, my board agrees that we need to better resource the fair and take a more active interest in maintenance of the facilities and consider capital projects as part of our larger capitol budget for the county,” McCauley said.
“We believe that the funding we give now is about $10,000 a year. We don’t have a dollar amount in mind, but a substantial increase in that annual subsidy, I think, is warranted,” he added.
All of this attention comes after much confusion.
At the previous fair association meeting in February, chaos escalated to the point that two members of the board resigned in the heat of the moment only to return to their positions. An investigatory committee was also formed based on unnamed accusations.
Just a few months prior, the previous fair manager, Danny McEnerney, quit his post, citing differences with the board as a reason for his departure.
“We have been watching with interest in the last year or so as things have gotten challenging here, and we have some concerns, and we’re really interested in trying to get this organization to a better place,” Dean said.
She asked the board to suspend business and instead focus on restructuring the organization from the ground up.
“We want a new board to be formed quickly. We want that to have diverse representation with lots of different interests represented,” Dean said.
Not only would there be additional oversight from the county, new bylaws were needed and new positions designated.
“I know what I’m proposing is not easy,” Dean said. “The group sitting up here will look different, and I know that that’s hard.”
To begin that process, Dean put forward a new committee.
“What I want to propose … is that Mark and I work with Linda Noble and Tobi McEnerney as a committee to research different models for how boards can structure themselves and work with governments,” Dean said.
Noble is the association’s sole trustee-at-large, and represents those most closely associated with the county fair itself, while McEnerney is the wife of the previous fair manager who has spent many of her own hours volunteering at the fairgrounds.
While some expressed appreciation for the county’s increased attention and assistance, not all were on board.
“The board needs some assurances that they will be able to move forward,” Noble said after Dean asked to hear back on the proposals.
“It’s been a really challenging last couple of months for all of us and it feels like putting out fires every single day. There’s a trepidation to make any kind of move or do anything for fear it will be the wrong thing.”
“With that looming fear that every move is being scrutinized, it’s absolutely paralyzing,” she added.
With a great deal of work at hand for not only reorganizing, but also planning for the upcoming county fair and future events, one board member doubted the current capacity to produce results.
“I hope you have about 10,000 people in your pocket to do a lot of this work because there’s a lot of work to do,” said Rita Hubbard, fair board treasurer.
Multiple members of the public present for the meeting noted that they were willing to volunteer, but the past lack of organization kept them from knowing when and where to help.
While Dean had asked to suspend business for the meeting, one piece was too time sensitive to not address.
A mud drag event on the fairgrounds scheduled for April was cancelled amid land-use concerns.
“It’s my understanding now that the issue of the appropriate land use is being reviewed by the city,” Noble said. “We do not have any legal right to make a decision about whether they can go forward or not. There is currently no policy in place. There needs to be a policy going forward with a contract and specific agreement with the mud drags assuming that it’s permissible according to the city.”
The mud drags have been a part of the Jefferson County Fair for decades. Prior to pandemic closure, a local group called the Tonka Toyz 4x4 Club took the mud drag over and expanded to three events throughout the year, including the fair.
Three members of that club were named to the investigatory committee at the previous fair board meeting.
“I want to put to rest this rumor that anything to do with stopping or inhibiting the mud drag came from this board,” Noble said.
She noted that after the last mud drag hosted in October, neighbors had written letters expressing concerns about the event.
“The sheriff’s office was called because of what was going on back in October,” Noble said. “There was drunkenness, loud noise; this is reports from neighbors.”
In addition, a letter from John Talberth, a local homeowner, was submitted asking to cease and desist the mud drags. Talberth submitted the letter through the Center for Sustainable Economy, a nonprofit based in Oregon, of which he is a member. Talberth also spoke at the recent meeting.
“The Little League concessions had to get a permit but the mud drags don’t get a permit? It just seems completely inconsistent,” Talberth said.
He claimed that high impact uses like the mud drags should require environmental review.
No members of the truck club were present to speak, so Amber Jones, one of the fair’s superintendents, spoke on their behalf.
“They would like to still do an event with whatever necessary arrangements, but they did end up canceling their event and their wedding that was planned during that event,” Jones said.
Adam Cole, president of the car club and a regular fixture at the fairgrounds, had planned to hold his wedding the weekend of the April mud drag.
At earlier meetings, Cole claimed that the previous fair manager had made a verbal contract with the club stating that they could host events on the fairgrounds in exchange for maintaining the grass and providing security for the county fair.
As the meeting came to a close, one question still hung in the air.
When asked when the investigatory committee would be reporting, Board President Don Pruitt responded: “We haven’t heard nothing.”
Jones first raised the issue of the investigation at the previous meeting, and spoke with The Leader after the recent meeting.
“We’re going to give the county’s idea a try, if the county’s idea includes that most of the board is no longer holding a board position,” Jones said.
When asked specifically about whether the allegations would be brought forward, Jones was careful in her reply.
“It’s not going anywhere. But I think that it needs to be held to give this an opportunity because we don’t need to be at each other’s throats.”
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Being a Fair Board Member means hours of contributing your time and energy so I thank those who serve. If the county had offered a Sheriff's presence at the Mud Drags to police drinking, that would be useful contribution rather than requiring restructuring from the ground up. Both the Mud Drags and Danny McEnerney's Christmas event contribution increase fairgrounds utilization. Certainly think the commissioners could have attended earlier fair board meetings to get the gist of the dysfunction before throwing the baby out with the wash water. Requiring Little League concessions to get a permit and searching the county code for "appropriate land use" for the mud drags seems like a lot more over site than is really needed.
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