.Firing Santa Cruz Fairgrounds CEO Causes Backlash

Public calls former Fairgrounds CEO Dave Kegebein’s termination a 'political strike'

Nearly 100 people filled the Fine Arts Building at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds Tuesday to attend the Fair’s Board of Directors meeting. 

While Fair Board meetings don’t normally draw a large audience—former CEO Dave Kegebein says some days saw nobody in attendance—a growing number have been coming since Oct. 4, when the Board voted 7-2 to fire Kegebein. 

Many community members question the move, and say the Fairgrounds’ books began to show a healthy, positive balance under Kegebein’s leadership for the first time in more than a decade.

Kegebein says the institution’s books were “upside down” when he started in 2012, and showed a $2 million balance when he was fired.

Don Dietrich, who took the reins after Kegebein’s termination, says the decision to fire Kegebein came after an audit by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). The audit showed that Kegebein charged 850 expenditures to a state-issued credit card, totaling $108,869, for “various purchases that were personal in nature, unjustified and/or not supported with a receipt or a vendor invoice.”

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But many question the report’s validity, saying the audit—and the move to fire Kegebein—was part of an effort by the state to take over the Fairgrounds. Kegebein also says he did not have a chance to respond to the audit before the board took action.

He says that the state is targeting its county fairgrounds to be converted into “resiliency centers” and used for emergencies, such as the homelessness crisis.

“People need to be engaged with what’s happening in the Fair industry, because there are more and more signs that the people from the state intend to repurpose  these fairgrounds from what the community has known them as,” Kegebein says. “If communities don’t stand up and defend their fairgrounds, they are going to be real surprised at the outcome.”

But CDFA Deputy Secretary Michael Flores says that the community does not need to worry about losing their fairgrounds.

He says that Santa Cruz County Fair is one of 17 fairgrounds that stand to benefit from a $96 million package of money from the CDFA, intended to help them become emergency centers complete with industrial kitchens and other infrastructure.

When not in use as resiliency centers, Flores says, the kitchens can be used as business incubators, similar to El Pajaro CDC in Watsonville, which holds several small food businesses. 

This happened at Redwood Acres Fairgrounds in Eureka, where a pie maker and a cider company set up successful businesses. 

Flores points out that annual county fairs are just one event out of the year.

“The rest of the year, CEOs and fair managers are looking to generate revenue,” he says.

The Directors who cast the dissenting votes against Kegebein’s termination—Jody Belgard and Loretta Estrada—were abruptly fired about two weeks later during a phone call from the office of Gov. Gavin Newsom. Former Watsonville Mayor Dennis Osmer reckons their firing was retribution for voting against the termination.

“In total, this was a political strike against a well-run and successful County Fair without regard to local consequences,” Osmer says in a letter to the Pajaronian.

The disputed charges outlined in the audit included $33,582 in fuel and $2,237 in maintenance charges for his truck.

Kegebein says all the charges he made were for his work at the Fairgrounds, and says he put 200,000 miles on the truck he purchased new to use there.

He agrees that he did not duly submit receipts and expense reports, but says he told state officials he would correct that. On Oct. 25, he presented a check for $30,000 to the Board to cover the fuel expenses.

On Tuesday, several people addressed the Board, nearly all of whom spoke against Kegebein’s termination.

“What happened to Dave was wrong,” Jeanette Crosetti says, whose father J.J. Crosetti ran the Fairgrounds in the 60s. “We don’t want this to happen again.”

Crosetti urges the directors to travel to Sacramento to advocate for the Fairgrounds at the gubernatorial level.

“Do what’s best for Santa Cruz County, not what’s best for Sacramento,” she says.

Osmer slammed Dietrich for suggesting Kegebein’s termination came because he misappropriated funds as outlined in the audit.

“Where is the evidence? There is no evidence,” Osmer says. “I think Mr. Kegebein is entitled to due process. Please give it to him.”

Gary Stubblefield, the Fairground’s Livestock Superintendent, says Kegebein was the best and most responsive of the several CEOs he worked for.

“Anything that we needed, he was there for us,” Stubblefield says. 

Other fairgrounds, Stubblefield adds, have lost their livestock departments due to mismanagement and in-fighting.

“We need someone like Dave to help keep us on track and give us the cooperation we need to keep the livestock going,” he says.

Because the item was not on Tuesday’s Board agenda, there was no action for Directors to take.

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