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Ventura County

Fairgrounds CEO Is Forced Out on Leave

Action against Roger Gibbs is the result of an apparent dispute with some board members. Raceway fans decry the removal of an ally.

November 13, 2002|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

The chief executive officer of Ventura County's fairgrounds was forced out on leave Tuesday in a power struggle between himself and several board members.

The action against Roger Gibbs signaled a deep division on the Fair Board, taking at least three of its nine members by surprise. Board President Greg Carson declined comment, citing a state law barring discussion of personnel matters.

At the same time, one of the most contentious issues before the board -- a contract renewal for auto racing at the fairgrounds -- appeared closer to settlement.

A board committee recommended approval of a one-year lease for Jim Naylor, operator of Ventura Auto Raceway. The raceway has been criticized for generating too much noise and bringing in too little money.

It was unclear whether the action against Gibbs was linked to his support for the raceway, an operation opposed by the board's leadership. But racing fans and longtime fair volunteers saw his forced leave as part of an effort by a board faction to push traditional, low-profit community activities out of the 62-acre Seaside Park fairgrounds.

"They'd like to see it all go away," said Craig Fosdick, the fair's longtime large-livestock superintendent. "They'd like to decimate the fair and fly in the face of a tradition that goes back nearly 100 years."

Fosdick said that Carson, a former mayor of Ventura, and board Vice President Ginger Gherardi, head of the Ventura County Transportation Commission, "have done the fair no favors and should be replaced immediately."

With a long-term master plan in the works for Seaside Park, some board members and area business people are discussing new directions for the fairgrounds, a collection of aging Quonset huts, stables and an open-air arena used for racing.

"It's 2003 and the fairgrounds needs to reflect economic reality," Carson said Tuesday. "We need to provide an entertainment venue that crosses a broader section of the community. Ventura deserves to not necessarily have a raceway in the center of town; maybe we've outgrown it."

A park, a convention center and a concert amphitheater have come up as possible uses for the site. But races at the fairgrounds go back decades and typify the property's down-home appeal, contended dozens of Gibbs' supporters, who gathered Tuesday afternoon in the fairgrounds' parking lot.

"Gibbs is one of the best things that's ever happened here, and he happens to believe that racing is good for the fairgrounds," said racing enthusiast Dean Cook. On the other hand, Carson and Gherardi have "no patience, no compassion and no tolerance for learning their jobs and listening to people," he said.

Others contended that the two had been rude to Gibbs in public meetings, interrupting his remarks repeatedly.

The crowd had come to show its support for Gibbs at a special board meeting called to hash out the differences between the CEO and the board. They also meant to rally around Naylor, whose 25-year racing operation seemed to be hurtling toward its demise.

The meeting was canceled just three hours before it was to start. Even so, Fair Board members C. Patrick Askay, Janice Berk and Craig Underwood were on hand to offer a more personal greeting than a "Meeting Canceled" note.

"We knew a lot of people would be here and we came by to listen to them," Berk said.

The three said they had not been consulted by their fellow board members on the decision to place Gibbs on paid leave. Gibbs could not be reached for comment. Asked if he felt left out, Askay, a former fair assistant manager, responded: "To say the least."

Gibbs' future at Seaside Park could be discussed at the board's Nov. 19 meeting, said board spokesman Devlin Raley. However, the timing of that discussion is uncertain.

The raceway's renewal is likely to be up for a vote by the full board at that meeting. The contract limits the track's 2003 operation to 25 days and would require it to close earlier than in past years to stem noise complaints, Naylor said.

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