County fair board, commissioners at odds over role, relationship with staff

Tensions between County Commissioners, county staff and the Montana ExpoPark/Montana State Fair Advisory Board are high.

In December, the fair board sent a letter to the County Commission requesting information about ExpoPark operations, particularly financials, and expressed frustration over previous requests that had been rebuffed and they’d been told that “the advisory board does not need to know” or “the advisory board doesn’t understand government budgeting.”

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In their letter, the board writes that part of their responsibility is financial oversight of the facility.

In a January, Commissioner Joe Briggs sent a letter to the board in response and wrote that “you are very much mistaken in this regard. You are an advisory body that serves at the pleasure of the Board of the County Commissioners, you have no financial oversight authority.”

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The ExpoPark is a public facility supported by tax dollars and it’s financials, as well as other county financials, are subject to public inspection. The Montana State Fair is a county activity and it’s financials are also public.

Briggs and Commissioner Jim Larson met with the seven-member fair board on Jan. 27 and the board asked to discuss their role and responsibilities.

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The board members are appointed by the County Commission through an application process and are volunteers.

During the meeting, Leanne Hall, fair board chair, said that, “we are a unified board. We feel it’s a good time to get clarification on our job description. We strongly feel that our role has been minimalized.”

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She said that the board is concerned about transparency and has asked for information and been told that they aren’t privy. None of board members want to continue with a deficit for the facility and the fair and “lackluster results year after year.”

Ken Thompson, a fair board member, said that the board had not met with ExpoPark staff since December 2019 and said their interactions had become toxic.

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He said that the board agrees they should be working with staff to help improve the facility and the fair and that the board had come to commissioners for help on how to improve the relationship with staff.

Briggs said that the board is merely advisory and had been problematic in the past when it tried to manage staff. 

“We can’t even bring ideas because they take them as personal insults,” Ken Thompson said.

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Briggs said that they pulled ExpoPark staff out of the fair board meetings since the staff had made complaints that the board was verbally abusive.

“That would be an outright lie,” Dan Miller, fair board member said.

Briggs said he was in one of the meetings and characterize it as such. He said that the board’s language of calling the facility and fair’s performance lackluster would be upsetting to the three full-time staffers at ExpoPark.

Ken Thompson said that once staff were out of the board meetings, there was an open exchange of ideas among board members but “we had no direct knowledge of what was going on.”

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Board members said that vendors, major users, contractors and members of the public come to them with questions and concerns and the board is unable to get answers or bring concerns to the staff or commissioners. Board members said that often those who have complaints or concerns fear retribution from staff and spoke of one case in which the loss of a contract was threatened.

Briggs said people should come to commissioners with those issues and that he didn’t believe there was retribution by staff and that such a situation was ripe for anonymous complaints.

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Cory Thompson, fair board member, said that “they come to us because they don’t feel comfortable coming to you. Because we’re an advisory board, they expect us to bring it to you.”

The board’s bylaws, as approved by County Commissioners in January 2015, state that the board “will work with, beside ExpoPark’s staff, public works and Board of County Commissioners. Members of the advisory board do not have the authority to direct the actions of ExpoPark’s staff.”

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The bylaws also state that a board objective is to create “a conduit between the Board of County Commissioners/management and the facility users, community members and interested parties that allows for the acquisition and sharing of information unencumbered by status or authority.”

Ken Thompson said, “If we can’t come to you and tell you, who can?”

Briggs said he had tried to steer the advisory board away from financials since they’re complicated and also get them out of the mix of handling complaints or concerns and instead have them operate as a think tank for ideas.

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Cory Thompson, board member, said, “it’s impossible to advise on anything without being honest about where we’re currently at.”

Board members asked about concessions revenues for events so that they could make recommendations specific to catering or food trucks and if they could get the spreadsheets that the ExpoPark manager uses to track those revenues.

“I’d consider that micromanagement,” Briggs said.

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Cory Thompson said that they can’t make recommendations without accurate and up to date information. Briggs said that they have the information but it’s not in a format they like.

Lynn Oatman, a new fair board member, said that when she was on the city’s Park and Recreation Advisory Board that staff provided simple financial breakdowns of concessions and revenues at events for all of their facilities. She said it was helpful and Hall said that it would be good to have the information in an understandable format as taxpayers and board members.

“In my opinion, we were asking questions that any taxpayer should have answers to,” Cory Thompson said. “It’s really the responsibility of government to present financials to taxpayers in a way that’s understandable.”

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Board members asked how or if they could be involved in selecting entertainment for the fair. Briggs said in terms of booking and contracting, he didn’t see a role for the board, but that they could give suggestions for acts or genres that the staff could use to guide it’s booking process.

Briggs said that this year would be odd since the county has contracts from last year and he assumes that many of them will roll forward to this year’s fair.

Larson said that several ideas from the fair board had been implemented, including more seating in the Midway area.

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The group discussed the possibility of changing the policy regarding concessions, catering and food trucks for events.

Les Bruner, board member, said he’s been asked about using food trucks at events and wasn’t sure what the policy was since it seemed different for different users.

Briggs said that currently, they use food vendors for the fair, but for events the county has reserved the catering for itself if it’s able to handle it, “but what we can handle has gotten pretty narrow. But we’re talking about it because if we’re serious about catering, we need to invest in a commercial kitchen.”

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Briggs said “the situation is changing” and that commissioners have asked Susan Shannon, ExpoPark manager to look into options. He said that if the county gives up internal concessions, they’d need to take a percentage from food trucks to make up for it.

Briggs said he’d like feedback from the board on gate fees, package deals, and so forth. He said the county already went to free parking as recommended by the fair board.

Fair board members asked the status of discussion on the all-day wristband they had proposed in 2019 for the 2020 state fair.

The sales for the timed wristbands had seen limited increases in recent years, according to the fair board’s data, with two time zones.

The daytime wristband for noon to 5 p.m. was $22 and the evening wristband was $30 for 6 p.m. to midnight. There was a $3 coupon offer, according to the board’s data.

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The board recommended a $30 all-day wristband that they found would improve perception and drive attendance as well as increased revenue.

The board estimated that there would be a slight decrease in wristbands sold, but an increase in overall revenue and the change wouldn’t increase operating costs.

Briggs said the operator, The Thomas Carnival, was willing to try an all-day wristband but had recommended against it. Briggs said the county hadn’t talked with the carnival owner about their contract due to COVID, but no decisions had been made.

The board and commissioners also discussed naming rights and marketing opportunities during the meeting.

Briggs said there was a lot of angst over the process in naming the arena for Pacific Steel and Recycling, which was done through a bidding process. Briggs said Shannon, the ExpoPark manager believes there could be naming rights opportunities for the gates to the fairgrounds.

The county also did a request for proposals for naming rights to the new basketball floor.

Larson told The Electric that there is no county policy on naming rights and though there have been discussions on the process there hadn’t been enough interest in naming rights to develop a more standard process. Instead, the county has used the request for proposals model.

Briggs said that it’s not always clear how much funding will be available for the fair in the county budget early on since it occurs at the beginning of a new fiscal year, before the county has finalized its budget.

“It’s a luxury item,” he said and that it’s not a top priority for funding in the budget. There are dedicated county mills that go toward the fair.

Briggs said that the county had done about $1.1 million worth of improvements at ExpoPark during the COVID-19 closures and that was money out without the typical revenues from events so that the fund was showing a deficit, but he said he believed that the fairgrounds will always be subsidized by taxpayer dollars.

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