County Commission disbands fair board

County Commissioners voted unanimously during their Oct. 1 meeting to disband the Montana ExpoPark Advisory Board in favor of a “resource team.”

The move comes after more than a year of tension between the commission and the fair board.

The fair board has argued for the last year in particular that they’ve been trying to make recommendations to improve the fair and being shut down by commissioners. The commission has argued they don’t need micromanagers of the staff and want a group to offer ideas.

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Commissioner Don Ryan made the suggestion for the resource team that would “consist of individuals representing their area of interest or involvement in the fair who will be the voice for their group,” according to the agenda report.

Those areas of interest listed in his proposal are: cultural/fine arts exhibitors; agricultural exhibitors; food vendors; commercial vendors; gate operators/ticket takers; parking/traffic management; community impact/chamber/tourism; security/safety; entertainment; and “other such categories of persons as may be warranted or desired.”

Ryan said the county had inherited the advisory board in 2009 when it took over management of ExpoPark from SMG.

During several meetings and in conversation with The Electric, Ryan said they weren’t sure how long the board had been in its current form.

The board’s current 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.”

During the Oct. 1 meeting, Leanne Hall, fair board chair, said that the board has asked questions about financials and operations in an effort to make recommendations for improvements to the fair.

“If you don’t like our board asking questions, how would you feel about so called experts asking the same questions,” Hall said. “We only wanted to make the fair better.”

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Hall said the board met with the county human resources department at the commission’s request “because we were told many times that staff was very sensitive and we needed to learn how not to hurt their feelings.”

She said that the board members are “really disappointed” in the commission’s decision to dissolve the fair board.

“I believe this failure is on the commissioners part” for not working with the citizens, Hall said.

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Cory Thompson, vice chair of the fair board, said that when he was appointed to the board in June 2019, he was told by a former board member not to ask any questions because the commission didn’t want that.

Early on, he said, he noticed that staff was running the board meetings, controlling the conversation and not accurately recording the minutes. He said that anything critical of the fair or Expo Park was omitted from the minutes.

Thompson said that during a December 2019 meeting between the board and commissioners, that Commissioner Joe Briggs had said if the board didn’t need staff assistance the staff shouldn’t be there and that staff had not attended a meeting since.

Thompson said that Briggs had removed staff from the meetings because the board was verbally abusive to staff, which Thompson characterized as a lie.

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Thompson again raised concerns over the board’s inability to get financial information and contrasted that to their request of MetraPark in Billings, when they received financial information as requested within hours.

He recommended that the commission should keep the advisory board and take action on some of their past advice.

Ken Thompson, another board member, said that the commission had steered them away from their job description and that they haven’t met or spoken with staff in about three years other than casual hellos at the fair.

He questioned how they could make things better if they weren’t working together and also said that the resource team wouldn’t be meeting in public, keep minutes or notice their meetings, further distancing themselves from the taxpayers.

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Lynn Oatman, a fair board member, said she applied for the board in 2019 when she was retiring from the Montana Air National Guard and “all we’ve ever tried to do as an advisory board is to give suggestions and to help you. All I ever wanted to do was help the county make the fair better.”

But Oatman said what she’s experienced in that time has not been what she’d hoped.

“We have not been listened to, none of our suggestions have been taken seriously,” she said. “I’m very sad that it has come down to this and just because we challenged you that you want to get rid of us.”

Dale Swift, who said he wasn’t speaking as a vendor or as someone with skin in the game but has been around the fair for more than 35 years, said that the fair has diminished and said the county had the board of experts volunteering their time to help improve the events and facility.

“Disbanding this is a total disregard of your responsibility to the taxpayer,” he said.

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Les Bruner, a fair board member, said that he was encouraged to join the board and had experience with the Home and Garden Show as well as other events that he thought could be helpful.

He said that the board represents the public and is an avenue for taxpayers to raise concerns and bring ideas to the county.

“I feel that this is an injustice to have this board swept away,” he said.

Commissioner Don Ryan said that when he came to the commission, it was suggested he be the liaison for the fair board because the relationship had “deteriorated.”

Ryan was appointed to the seat in February following Jane Weber’s resignation.

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In that time, “I found that I haven’t been successful in bridging the communication gap…but I was trying,” he said.

He said that over the last few months, commissioners discussed rewriting the board’s role since they wanted a group to give them advice, but not be fair managers.

Two board terms expired in June and Ryan said four people applied. Commissioners opted not to make any appointments or changes until after the fair.

Ryan said there were instances of behavior from some board members that made commissioners think they shouldn’t be board members. He said that instead of singling those people out, he thought it was best to disband the board and start over.

“There’s three parties at fault,” he said. “There’s differences but we can’t get them worked out.”

Commissioner Jim Larson said the relationship between commissioners and the board had “been a sore spot for awhile.”

He said he hadn’t had anyone come to him with complaints about the fair.

Commissioner Joe Briggs said that SMG had counted fair attendance differently and included employees, event participants and some people multiple times so that it wasn’t a fair comparison between those years to now.

He said he was the official who recommended changing the way fair attendance was tracked and the county went to counting hard ticket sales.

“It’s not a true decay,” he said.

During the meeting, it was said that Briggs had recommended chopping up the fairground and selling it for commercial development. He said that was partially true, but said that came after he recommended building a better facility at a different location, an idea that didn’t come to fruition.

“We are limited by a very old facility that was not designed for its current use,” Briggs said.