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Critics of Fair Chief Say He's Out of Touch With Community : Tradition

January 07, 1988|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

Maybe it's just that Jeremy Ferris doesn't look the part. With his thinning blond hair, blue-framed reading glasses and jogging shoes, he more closely resembles the Santa Monica concert promoter he was 10 years ago than head of a county fair.

Maybe it's that his dismissal three months ago of a veteran supervisor of the Home Arts department, the fair's coordinating unit, struck volunteers in that department not just as an insult to a beloved leader, but as an affront to all long-cherished homespun values.

Or maybe it's just that Ferris' vision of a revamped and prosperous fairgrounds has angered many longtime residents who view the place as a repository of community values, a sanctuary from the tides of change.

In any case, the 46-year-old Hawaii-born manager of the Ventura County Fair has become the target of increasingly bitter attacks for what critics say is disregard for the traditional country flavor of the annual event in favor of a commercialized, amusement-park atmosphere.

In an emotional meeting last month, 60 disgruntled fair volunteers launched a petition drive calling, among other things, for Ferris' ouster, the reinstatement of former Home Arts Supt. Edna Mills and a return of the fair's dates from August to October.

Those critics, who call themselves the "Give the Fair Back to the People Committee," will meet again next week before formally asking the fair's nine-member Board of Directors on Jan. 19 to fire Ferris.

"He just does not have his finger on the heartbeat of what Ventura County is all about," said Judy Eldeb, a 10-year volunteer in the Home Arts department. "This is not a megalopolis-type situation here. It is a community, agricultural, home arts, down-home-type of area. He's losing that."

But Ferris, who won a Billboard magazine award in 1976 for his management of the 3,000-seat Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, says he is misperceived.

"I think it's more of an emotional perception than a reality," he said. "I'm not a lot different than those people are. . . . I love the fair, too."

Ferris said critics are merely reacting to changes at the 79-year-old fairgrounds that are part of the inevitable growth and development already sweeping Ventura County.

"There are a lot of frustrations associated with the growth of this county and . . . they come out on something that you care about--that's the fair," he said. "It's almost a microcosm of change throughout the county. And we're a stationary target. You can come complain to us."

A favorite Ferris saying sums up his perspective: "Progress is important, but change is its motivator," he said. "And change has its enemies."

Some of the changes Ferris has made since he was appointed fair manager three years ago have not won him friends. His critics include:

Shirley Henniger, a longtime volunteer in the Home Arts department, who says Ferris acted inappropriately when he told Mills by telephone that he was not going to renew her contract after nearly 30 years of service to the fair.

James Valadez, adviser for the county 4-H program, who says he fears that renovation planned for the fairgrounds will benefit convention-type activities at the expense of agricultural and livestock exhibitions.

Jim Allen, organizer of horse and carriage shows, who says that a carnival area being proposed next to the outdoor arena will disrupt equestrian events.

In addition, dozens of fair-goers say they want the fair dates returned from August to October to allow local high school bands to again participate in the opening-day parade.

"There are a lot of people in this county who are bitter over this fair," Allen said. "They want to go back to the old traditional fair. They don't want this circus thing."

Even fair board President Al Nunes, who said Ferris generally has performed well as manager, criticized him for not curbing the controversy earlier.

"I think that some of the problems that exist could have been and should have been avoided," Nunes said. "A good manager keeps his people and the board out of these problems."

Others, however, have defended Ferris.

"I think he's doing an excellent job running the fair," fair board member Don Dufau said. "He's been a very good manager, a good businessman and a good public relations man. . . . Many times, he's been criticized very, very unfairly."

But in a business that in Ventura County depends on the yearly participation of about 3,000 volunteers and 300,000 fair-goers, the erosion of public support, whether for legitimate reasons or not, can be costly, fair officials say.

"It's a real balancing act," said Lyle Mills, acting manager of the neighboring Kern County Fair and a 20-year veteran of county fairs.

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