Drive-in concerts have been scheduled for Iration December 5, former members of Oingo Boingo December 11, and The Nutcracker December 19.
While Covid-triggered cancelations pushed the Del Mar Fairgrounds into a $10 million deficit as of September, two former fairground employees claim that that the fairgrounds governing board and its staff was headed for a fall even without the virus. They tell tales of free cars, drinking on the job, loosey-goosey accounting and a system where friends of managers were rewarded while others were fired. They say that although the Del Mar Fairgrounds operates with the supposed oversight of the governor, its free-wheeling management practices would never be tolerated in official California work environments.
The two were employed by the 22nd District Agricultural Association which had a full-time staff of 153 at the beginning of 2020. That crew ran the fair and oversaw the year-round operations of the 370-acre fairgrounds. Last month, 91 of those employees were terminated. Many of them signed agreements promising not to talk about their termination. The two who are speaking up for this article did so on the condition their names not be used.
Both claim that general manager Tim Fennell was forced into an early retirement three years before he reached the 30-year mark.
Employee A says Fennell got a gym built on the fairgrounds. “He was very cheap. He didn’t want to pay to go to Frog’s [private Solana Beach gym], so he had a gym built at the west end of the grandstand. He’d go there every day. The rest of the staff could use it if they got a $5 pass.”
The former staffer says certain vendors and contractors who got lucrative exclusive contracts to do business for the fair didn’t have to follow the rules. “It was the same contractors year after year. If new contractors wanted to come in, the staff would tell the existing contractor what the bid was so they could beat it… And the general manager [Fennell] and the two deputy GMs were given cars. Why would they need cars when almost all the meetings were held on the Fairgrounds. Maybe it wasn’t illegal but it just didn’t smell right.”
The Del Mar Fairgrounds general manager reports to a nine-member board known as the 22nd District Agricultural Association. Its members are appointed by the governor. “When [attorney] David Watson resigned from the board he said he was leaving because of misappropriation of funds and bad management,” says employee A about Watson’s departure in April. “They are now saying everything is crashing because of Covid. But it really started tanking four years ago. They kept seeing a decline in horse racing which was no surprise, yet they kept borrowing money. That’s when they started talking about making loans against existing bonds.”
“I would hate to see a developer get a hold of that property,” says employee A about one doomsday scenario. “My own thinking is that maybe the 22nd DAA should just go away and the fairgrounds should be run by the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.”
Employee B maintains the employee bloodbath of last month cut out some competent staff. “They got rid of all accounting people who actually knew what was going on.” The former employee said honest account staffers were sometimes rebuffed by their superiors. "Managers would turn in falsified travel claims. They would use the same receipt that someone else had already used. We would bring it up and nothing would happen. Why isn’t the state sending in people to do an audit so they can see what is actually being done? I know for a fact that people contacted Sacramento and nothing ever happened.”
The former staffer maintains Tim Fennell’s employment roster was huge. “They had 150-plus people. What did they need all those people for? Other fair districts have a fraction of what we had. A lot of them were paid really well, like $60,000 to $90,000… And when they started firing people, they didn’t care about seniority. It should be last to be hired, first to be fired. But here it was if you were friends of the managers you got to stay."
Employee B noted that when it became clear that revenue from the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club horse racing meets and the Surfside Race Place kept declining, the fair board opted to take out a $15 million loan three years ago to refashion the Race Place into a 1900-capacity concert venue. “They kept digging deeper and deeper in debt. Now what happens to all those bonds they took out?”
A call to the governor’s office to get a comment on all of these statements was not returned.
So if, as the ex-employees allege, the Del Mar Fair board is mired in bad business behavior, and if the governor’s office is not motivated to intervene, who will fix the dysfunction?
“Something has to give,” says Solana Beach mayor-elect Lesa Heebner; she says it is important to think about new ways to oversee how the Fairgrounds are run. She says she wants to help create a new consortium of local leaders from the adjacent cities (San Diego, Del Mar, Solana Beach), incoming county supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer, elected state officials, the governor’s office and the Del Mar Fair board. “Let’s craft a new business plan and create a new business model as the governor has requested.” Heebner says it is clear Covid will not be over by the summer. “I think it’s safe to say we will go another year without a fair as we used to know it. And we will not have horse racing with spectators anytime soon. How long can the fairgrounds survive in this manner?”
Heebner says the Fairgrounds must always be available for evacuation. Besides that, she thinks everything else should be on the table about how the Fairgrounds should be used going forward. “I really don’t want to see it morph into one big concert venue. What does that have to do with agriculture?” Heebner says live music was increasingly added in the 90s to bring in more revenue. “I think we have to ask ourselves, ‘Is that really what we want that property to be used for?’”
The Del Mar Fairgrounds is hoping to get millions in bailout assistance from both the state and the federal government in the next few months. The fair board was rebuffed in June when it asked the Orange County fair board for a $5million loan.
Meanwhile “drive-in concerts” have been scheduled including local reggae band Iration: Coastin' at the Drive-In, December 5, former members of Oingo Boingo December 11, and The Nutcracker staged by City Ballet of San Diego December 19.
Jennifer Hellman, Del Mar Fairgrounds marketing director, says that the fair maintains a sponsorship agreement with Chevrolet that includes the use of six courtesy vehicles. “These vehicles are used for various purposes including use by the executive staff, educational program outreach staff, and sign shop staff.” She says the Fairgrounds follow a competitive bidding process for its vendors and contractors. ”In the case of an IFB (invitation for bid) the contract is awarded to the qualified bidder with the lowest responsive and responsible bid, or in the case of a two-tier RFP (request for proposal) the contract is awarded based on both an evaluation of the proposers technical ranking and lowest cost.”
Regarding the claims of fake travel reimbursements, Hellman responds: “Fairgrounds employees submit travel reimbursements using the Travel Claim form and following CalHR travel claim procedures.
She says that employees were not “fired....We did lay off 60% of our permanent staff as well as 99% of our seasonal/temporary staff for a total reduction of 85% of our total workforce. For these layoffs, the Fairgrounds strictly followed instructions provided in the Layoff Manual published by CalHR."
The Fairgrounds spokesperson denies were any “loans against bonds.” She adds: “The current existing debt includes a combination of investments in revenue-generating facility improvements, infrastructure maintenance and upkeep projects, and legally-mandated environmental improvement projects.”