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Green Light for Ventura Track

Fair board extends raceway's contract for a year despite noise complaints. But fate of fairgrounds director remains in doubt.

November 27, 2002|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

Amid the cheers of racing fans, the Ventura County Fair Board voted unanimously Tuesday to let the Ventura Raceway operate for at least another year, despite complaints over noise from downtown residents and business owners.

The future of the fair's executive director, however, was less clear. After a two-hour closed session, the board disclosed it would not immediately terminate Roger Gibbs, who was suspended without public explanation on Nov. 12. He will remain on paid leave until a final decision is made at the board's meeting Dec. 17.

Played out before a passionate crowd of about 50 raceway supporters and fair volunteers, the issues are among the hottest in recent memory to beset the fair board, ordinarily a tranquil political backwater that governs use of the county fairgrounds at Seaside Park.

While noise complaints have been aimed at the raceway for years, the issue has become more urgent recently.

Former Ventura Mayor Greg Carson, the board's president, has been reluctant to support the raceway's contract renewal, saying better uses could be found for the property.

Meanwhile, Ventura's nearby downtown has undergone a transformation from a thrift-store capital to an area of trendy restaurants and stores, with merchants fretting over the effect on their businesses from the Saturday night "roar by the shore."

At Tuesday's meeting, downtown resident Rick Lyons invited raceway supporters to his hillside condominium so they could hear the noise for themselves.

"I can't use the balcony," he said. "If I have a dinner party, I have to keep the windows shut. It's the type of noise that's out there; it's not music -- it's not anything but annoying."

But Lyons said he was pleased by raceway director Jim Naylor's promise to curb the commotion further in the next year with high-tech mufflers, a 10 p.m. curfew, and other measures.

Lyons was one of three people who spoke against the raceway. Others lauded it as a living piece of Ventura history and said a group called Save Ventura Raceway had gathered 15,000 signatures in its defense.

"Auto racing is as much a part of Southern California as surfing and skateboarding," said former Ventura Mayor Jack Tingstrom, adding that legends of the sport such as Jeff Gordon started out at the little oval off the ocean.

Whether the raceway will face similar difficulties at next year's contract renewal may hinge on whether it is included in a master plan to guide future uses of Seaside Park. Board members are in the process of hiring consultants to help them with the task.

Dozens of racing fans stuck around with fair volunteers to put in a good word for Gibbs, who has been Seaside Park's director for three years.

"Roger has delivered 110% of everything he said he would," said longtime fair volunteer Norm Davis, owner of a feed store in Ojai.

Ventura resident Sally McNeilan praised Gibbs for encouraging the 2,000 or so volunteers responsible for putting on the fair each summer.

"Roger makes a point of going out of his way to talk to us," said McNeilan, adding that she has seen Gibbs in the pens helping volunteers work with pigs. "Most other managers never got out of the office."

Gibbs directed the Colusa County Fair in Northern California for 16 years. While fair board members have been silent on Gibbs' suspension, several said they were upset that other board members had not consulted them before suspending Gibbs.

Some fair volunteers said Gibbs had run afoul of the board, including Carson and Vice President Ginger Gherardi.

On Tuesday, Gibbs offered a brief statement, saying he had come to Ventura to "live a dream" and had planned to keep the job for about five years before retiring.

He said he had enjoyed a good rapport with various boards that have employed him for more than three decades and wanted a chance to reach an understanding with board members.

"I've been able to do this for 32 years," he said, "and I should be able to do it for a few more."

Gibbs declined a request for an interview but produced a sheet labeled "Accomplishments," which listed 31 items from completing a fence to developing an understandable budget.

Gibbs' attorney, Jonathan Light, faulted the board for allegedly failing to give his client proper notice of his suspension. He said board members have refused to outline their reasons.

"We've been tremendously interested in what issues there are that are causing discontent among some board members," Light said. "We haven't seen anything formal or even informally to explain why there's this unhappiness."

Light also questioned whether the suspension was legal without the consent of the full board.

Board members have not publicly discussed Gibbs, calling his suspension a personnel matter.

The most stinging criticism of the board came from Earl McPhail, the county's agriculture commissioner and a former board member who served for 14 years on the panel.

McPhail took the board to task for apparently failing to let Gibbs know about his perceived shortcomings or provide him with an opportunity to correct them.

"If you don't do this, you're doing a disservice to Roger and to the 785,000 people of Ventura County," McPhail said. "You have a job to do, and you're not doing it the right way."

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