A Kern County Fair Board meeting Monday to discuss an issue affecting a few dozen livestock exhibitors revealed deep divisions and tensions within the local livestock community, with frustrated audience members accusing fair management of changing rules capriciously and in secret, incompetence and ignoring their voices.
Dozens attended the monthly meeting of the board of directors, packing the cramped board room and spilling out into the hallway and patio. When board vice president Arnold Johansen opened the meeting by inviting public comment, the barrage started, with questions raised about how and when livestock chairpeople are selected, confusion over the rule process, even a crack about the livestock rule book itself.
"I just want to know who proofreads this book?" said Herman Porter, eliciting laughs from the crowd.
But the salvo that set the strained tone of the meeting was directed at Kern County Fair CEO Michael Olcott, who served on the board of directors before being named to the top appointed job in 2012.
"You had very good candidates for the CEO, people with backgrounds in fair management, and you hired one of your own," said Roger Williams, who told the board he has been circulating a petition to "replace the livestock office."
"The nepotism here at the Kern County Fair goes all the way to the board. Shame on you all. I think there should be some people resigning. I really do."
Much of Monday's meeting centered on the plight of several children who purchased livestock they will not have the opportunity to show and sell at the fair in September. Kern County fair management had intended to broaden the age range for children who wish to exhibit large animals, so several families purchased and have been raising livestock since last fall -- though no official change in the rules had been made by then. The families learned several months later, in mid-April, that the fair misinterpreted a state rule, disqualifying the children.
"How did these rule changes get into the Kern County Fair catalog to begin with?" asked Aaron Blinn, whose daughter Ashtin will be shy of the age requirement to show her heifer, Mini Moo, at the fair. "Did the board vote on changing the requirement?"
The answer to Blinn's question is no. Olcott said his staff made the decision -- a staff that consists of him and livestock supervisor Katie Stotler, who was recently named to serve on the California Department of Food & Agriculture rules committee. Olcott didn't believe the board needed to be consulted on the rule change but is looking to revise the way similar decisions are made.
Board member Mark Salvaggio read from an email Olcott sent in late April: The livestock committee will approve all changes to the livestock catalog, and those changes will be brought to the CEO for approval. Together, the CEO and committee will present the final book to the board for approval.
Olcott's attempt at a solution to the aborted rule change is to hold another event after the fair concludes to allow the excluded children to show and sell their animals. The reaction to the event, dubbed Octoberfest, illustrated the deep mistrust directed at the board and fair management.
"We will do it no matter what," Olcott vowed.
"Can we get that in writing?" said Kristine Hudson of Southwest 4-H.
"There will be no cancellation, period," said board director Jim Camp, his voice rising. "End of story."
Hudson tried to warn the board the rule change would not pass muster with the state at the March board meeting. Joining in her frustration Monday were Julie Beechinor of Frontier High's FFA and Clay Freeman of Foothill High's FFA, who all expressed concern that fair management is aloof and insular.
"This is all a symptom of a bigger problem," Freeman said. "We need to have a higher degree of transparency in how this stuff is ferreted out. Everyone is trying to defend their turf, and there's animosity and anxiety."
Though the majority of speakers were critical of fair management, some, including Fred Amafar, expressed support for how the fair is run.
"It's all the same group of 15 to 20 people I see. Same, same, same, same. It's 800 to 1,000 kids who show and just a few are upset. It's not perfect, but it's a damned good fair. Stand behind your people."