Fairgrounds negotiations at a standstill amid finger-pointing

City leaders and the Fair Board have until Dec. 31 to negotiate future uses of Petaluma’s Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds. So why aren’t they talking?|

Less than nine months remain until the current lease expires for Petaluma’s Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, at which point a new plan must be in place for the beloved 55-acre grounds located in the heart of town.

And yet, no formal discussions have taken place between city staff and the Sonoma-Marin Fair’s Board of Directors to decide how the property will function from 2024 onward — and both sides are pointing fingers over their failure to negotiate.

Members of the Fair Board said Petaluma city leaders are not cooperating in the decision-making process, which must be concluded by Dec. 31 following an Oct. 24 decision by the City Council to terminate the city’s current lease agreement with the Fair Board.

“The conversations about the Fair not wanting to engage – I think it’s almost backwards,” said Tawny Tesconi, CEO of the Sonoma-Marin Fair, responding to a written commentary by Petaluma’s mayor saying the Fair Board is to blame. “I don’t think that it’s really fair to suggest that the Fair hasn’t tried to sit down and talk.”

But an op-ed by Mayor Kevin McDonnell did exactly that, stating that the process of hammering out the fairgrounds’ future is currently at a standstill due to the Fair Board’s unwillingness to work with city staff.

“The Fair Board have declined the city’s invitation to be part of this reimagining, refusing to take part in negotiations for a new lease agreement that would give the Fair Board the right to continue operating the Marin-Sonoma Fair,” McDonnell wrote in the op-ed, published last week in the Argus-Courier.

The Fair Board governs the 4th District Agricultural Association, the state-funded organization that has managed and leased the property from the city for $1 per year for the past 50 years.

In 2020, an ad hoc committee – made up of City Council members, Fair Board members and one other member of the community – was formed to jump start conversations in working out a new lease agreement. But Michael Parks, president of the Fair Board, said those conversations were put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We get into 2022, things are opening back up again, and our committee gets called to a Friday meeting. We were told on Monday that the City Council will be introducing a new, third-party outreach company, Healthy Democracy from Oregon, to facilitate this, and they have spent $450,000 on it. Not together, not with us,” Parks said.

After the City Council voted to hire Healthy Democracy on Feb. 28, leaders with the group sent out 10,000 invitations to random Petaluma addresses. The group then conducted a lottery, where leaders randomly chose 36 Petalumans to form the advisory panel, which then spent more than 80 hours at Kenilworth Junior High School to meet over five weekends.

In those meetings, tenants and other stakeholders gave their views on how the fairgrounds should be used, then panelists put together a final set of guidelines to bring to the Council as recommendations for the fairgrounds’ future.

“We were pushed to the side,” Parks said about this planning process. “We were not allowed to participate except for in very small, little spots.”

In their final report, which was publicly presented to city leaders on Oct. 24, nearly all panelists not only showed strong support for keeping the annual fair, but also for a year-round farmers’ market, year-round park space, a focus on its agricultural features, securing the property’s status as an evacuation center and more -- a report that Fair Board members said they were happy to see.

Then the meeting took a turn they weren’t happy about, as the Council approved a resolution calling for the property’s maintenance, management and subleasing agreements to be turned over from the 4th District Agricultural Association to the city beginning Jan. 1, 2024.

The resolution came as a shock to many residents, and especially those on the Fair Board, since the meeting’s agenda was first categorized as a study session – which usually means no council action will be taken – and was initially intended to publicly notify the city of the Healthy Democracy group’s report.

But then, on the Friday afternoon before the meeting, the city sent out a notification that the agenda would contain an action item.

“That caught us all off guard,” Tesconi said.

Tensions increase

Relations between city staff and the Fair Board did not improve from there.

The Healthy Democracy panelists had also presented a set of goals for the city to consider, including having the 4th DAA “develop a business and financial plan to successfully operate the annual fair.”

Those goals are what city staff are now focused on, according to City Manager Peggy Flynn, who said staff members are currently reaching out to the property’s sub-tenants “to be prepared to execute new agreements effective beginning Jan. 1, 2024.”

Staff met with Tesconi on Nov. 4 to discuss next steps, which included “obtaining financial and operational information from the Fair that would assist the city and the Fair in developing an interim agreement that reflected their needs,” Flynn said, adding that “At that meeting, the Fair CEO committed to following up after their November board meeting.”

“Unfortunately, the Fair Board halted conversations with staff on Dec. 2, and have not resumed since,” Flynn said. “As a result, the top priority – which was to work with the 4th DAA/Fair Board on an interim use agreement for the next 3-5 year period – has been impacted.”

Tesconi and Parks said they did not decline an opportunity to negotiate with the city on the matter. Instead, they said, they want the former ad hoc committee to be reconvened, and for the decision-makers to sit down and talk more extensively before any clear-cut decisions are made.

“We still feel like there needs to be more opportunity for public input, more transparency from the city, to make this epic decision that is going to have years of effect on the community,” Tesconi said.

Flynn told the Argus-Courier that the ad hoc committee does continue to exist, though it isn’t clear when the committee will next be involved in the decision-making process.

Flynn and McDonnell also said what’s next expected from the Fair Board is a written plan of "what the Sonoma-Marin Fair footprint, budget, dates, and operational needs will be moving forward in 2024 and beyond.”

“I believe that the DAA can quite directly make a proposal for the property necessary for its vision,” Mayor McDonnell said. “What is being asked is something of a draft business plan. Any property owner would want to see a viable plan from the party that they consider contracting with.”

“There are to be sure many sticky details to negotiate, but first there needs to be a basic plan on the table.”

But, Tesconi said, “I don’t feel like what the city has offered us is an opportunity to negotiate. They’re just demanding us to create information for them. That’s not negotiation.”

“When you talk about negotiation and you look at what happened Oct. 24, what are we supposed to be negotiating about?” Tesconi added. “They made a decision already, absent of us. They pretty much told us, ‘figure out what kind of footprint you need for the fair and figure out how you’re going to make it financially, just putting on a fair.’ That’s not negotiation, that’s a direction.”

‘Total control’

Tesconi believes that the Oct. 24 decision was too hasty, and that turning over the property’s management to the city is not something the larger community supports.

“I think they want total control without public input over this process, because I don’t think they like what the public input might be,” she said.

Tesconi believes the 4th DAA is better equipped to handle the multilayered functions of the fairgrounds, especially in agriculture and emergency resiliency. She also thinks the city doesn’t appreciate how much it will be taking on starting in 2024.

“Why would you choose to take on a facility that’s now going to cost you taxpayer dollars when you’ve got another very viable, very well-funded organization that’s able to keep this community asset and this community jewel available?”

With the 4th DAA continuing its management of the property, Tesconi said, the fairgrounds would receive more funding from the state level. But that’s not the case if the city runs the property.

No public meeting on the fairgrounds is currently scheduled. But the next time it is, Tesconi said, a new City Council vote should be considered.

“This issue is probably one of the biggest decisions the City Council members have made in several decades,” she said. “And the fact that a lame duck City Council made this decision, and this new City Council isn’t demanding that an opportunity to get it back on the agenda, is appalling to me.”

Council involvement

Going forward, Fair Board members said they would like to see more discussion and involvement from the current City Council members – the ultimate decision makers on what happens next.

Council member Karen Nau, one of three new members elected last November, said during her campaign that the fairgrounds would be a top priority for her.

Since then, however, Nau said that because she is an employee at one of the schools located at the fairgrounds, she would have to recuse herself from voting on the matter. Later she reversed that by announcing she will retire from her 30-year teaching career in May, removing any conflict of interest.

“I am looking forward to having the City Council and Fair Board meet and make mutual plans for the fairgrounds, moving into the future,” Nau said. “The community deserves that and much more.”

For now, Tesconi and Parks said, the Fair Board will focus on putting on a fair, which this year is set to take place from June 21-25.

But without an agreement between the city and Fair Board, they said, fair operators may be forced to consider other locations for the Sonoma-Marin Fair in future years.

“Our goals are the same,” Parks said. “How we get there requires the expertise that each of us brings to the table. We have to sit down and have a discussion on that. There’s no way around that. It’s our only ask.”

Amelia Parreira is a staff writer for the Argus-Courier. She can be reached at amelia.parreira@arguscourier.com or 707-521-5208.

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