In a 7-2 vote Tuesday, the Santa Cruz County Fair Board terminated Fairgrounds Manager Dave Kegebein’s employment, a decision that generated an outcry from members of the public.
Board Members Jody Belgard and Loretta Estrada voted no.
“This is probably the darkest and most difficult day this board has ever had,” said Board President Don Dietrich.
It is not yet clear who will now take the reins at the Fairgrounds. Board member Loretta Estrada said that state policy places Dietrich in charge.
The termination came after an audit from the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) showed 850 expenditures on a state-issued credit card totaling $108,869 were for “various purchases that were personal in nature, unjustified and/or not supported with a receipt or a vendor invoice.”
Those charges, which occurred between 2017 and 2021, were part of expenses totaling $163,442 that was charged to a CDFA debit card issued to the Fairgrounds, a state-managed organization known officially as the 14th District Agricultural Association.
No allegations of any crimes are alleged in the audit. The audit was largely questioning the fact that no expense reports or receipts were submitted to the CDFA for approval.
Included in Kegebein’s charges was $33,582 in gasoline for his personal vehicle, and 10 maintenance charges of $2,237.
Of the maintenance charges, only five totaling $835 were submitted for state review, the audit states.
Kegebein said that those charges come from the fact that he was using his own pickup, which he purchased solely for his work at the Fairgrounds.
“I put 200,000 miles on my truck on Fairground business,” he said. “All I asked for was fuel, not full reimbursement for the cost of my truck.”
Kegebein reckons he has contributed $660,000 in his personal resources–including a truck that previously wore out.
He acknowledged that he should have submitted the expense reports for his fuel purchases, and said before his termination that he was planning to compile those along with mileage reports after he received the audit. He added that his fuel purchases have never been questioned.
“No one at any time ever broached the subject in the 10 years I’ve been here, or that I had to submit for mileage,” he said.
Kegebein said that he received the audit late last week, and that he never had a chance to respond to it before the Board meeting Tuesday afternoon. As such, its late introduction was “illegal,” he said.
But CDFA Deputy Secretary and Chief Counsel Haig Baghdassarian said that, under the Bagley-Keene Act—the set of rules fair boards follow—a draft of the audit was properly given to the board 30 days before the meeting.
The audit also shows 45 food purchases totaling $5,905 for such things as birthday celebrations, employee lunches, holiday dinners and other functions deemed by the state as “unallowable.”
In addition, the audit shows 23 purchases totaling $4,671 at retail establishments that were not detailed.
“Without receipts or any related documentation, our office cannot determine their appropriateness,” the audit states.
The audit also shows $1,352 in travel expenses for which nobody submitted receipts.
The CDFA in the audit also stated that a lack of an agreement with the Fairgrounds Foundation has led to among other things, the Fairgrounds not receiving a share of the revenue from at least two events, and being underpaid nearly $3,500 for alcohol sales at events.
A lack of oversight at the Fairground’s on-site fuel tank has meant that nearly $6,000 in propane is unaccounted for, the audit states.
The audit also criticizes the fairgrounds for not paying overtime to temporary employees, not keeping track of employee leave and failing to follow rules over contracting.
Jessica Ayala, who says she has been questioning Fair Board activities for years and has been attending Board meetings, said she approved of the decision.
“I am absolutely shocked from what I read in this report,” she said. “This is not something that should happen”
Not everyone agreed with the decision. The meeting, held in the Harvest Building, drew roughly two-dozen members of the public, more than half of whom spoke in favor of keeping Kegebein.
Dennis Osmer, the former mayor of Watsonville who has served on numerous boards including the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency and the Community Advisory Council, said the Fairgrounds is thriving, and praised Kegebein for the years he has put into the facilities.
“Who will fill his shoes,” he asked.
Local conservationist Sally-Christine Rodgers, whose husband Randy Repass founded West Marine, said she has worked with Kegebein for years.
Terminating him was not the answer to the discrepancies, she said.
“You don’t fire your best asset,” she said. “You work with them, you give them performance reviews and you let them do their job.”
Estrada, a longtime Board member, left the meeting in tears after the decision, which occurred in a closed-session meeting that lasted about an hour. She says she plans to resign from the Board over the termination.
“I’m very upset, period,” she said.
She said she did not receive the audit until just before the Tuesday meeting.
“I feel like I was blindsided,” she said. “Dave has done more for that Fairgrounds than anybody else in the Fairground’s history, combined. Everywhere you look you see Dave’s stamp on the things he’s done.”
With only one day to read the Audit, Estrada acknowledged the questionable expenses, and said that Kegebein may have had “bad judgment.”
“I can’t deny what he’s done, but he’s never done anything criminal,” she said. “Everything he’s done has been for the Fairgrounds.”