ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I reported on the State Fair for what seemed like a lifetime but was probably only about 10 years.
The State Fair Commission held monthly meetings and sometimes they lasted for hours; I remember lunch being brought in. Many of the meetings were taken up by dry discussions of the details of financial reports, horse stalls and what time the rodeo should start, but others were barn burners at which commissioners argued about vendors’ contracts and admission fees, and members of the public lined up to be heard.
The point is the State Fair commissioners used to have meetings, frequent ones, in public, where everybody got to hear what was going on and add their voices to the mix. They don’t anymore.
As news broke of the death of 14-year-old Santa Fe resident Hannah Bruch at an alcohol-fueled “foam party” on the Expo New Mexico grounds, Commissioner Charlotte Rode, a club basketball coach from Albuquerque, sent an email to the other six Fair commissioners that was remarkable on many levels, but mostly as a reminder of how sequestered and divided the commission has become.
“We’ve done nothing as commissioners to prevent something like this from happening,” Rode wrote. “We are responsible.”
And then, in case there was any confusion about just how big the problems are within the State Fair Commission, and between Rode, Expo New Mexico Manager Dan Mourning and State Fair Commission Chairman Larry Kennedy, she went on: “Dan Mourning is, by law, our responsibility. We will be sued, and no amount of money would be enough to replace this family’s child. Where are you, Chairman Kennedy? You have called two meetings in two years outside of electing yourself to the chair.”
Rode went on to repeat her contention that the commission didn’t deal fairly in awarding the fairgrounds casino contract. And then she made a plea for something that – in light of the death of a teenager at an event booked by State Fair management and occurring on state property – seems like it should go without saying: “Call a meeting and get to the bottom of this, NOW!”
The last time the State Fair Commission held a meeting was in January, an annual meeting that is required by law. Before that, it was in June 2012.
Outside of the annual fair in September, Expo New Mexico is a year-round venue with concerts, fairs and trade shows, and the casino and racetrack. Day-to-day management falls to a manager and staff, but the volunteer commission is the policy-setting agency.
Members of public bodies are prohibited from taking action in private and this commission isn’t acting in public, so one wonders how it can be doing anything.
According to the governor’s spokesman, it really doesn’t have to.
When I asked for Gov. Susana Martinez’s comment on the State Fair Commission’s infrequent meeting schedule and silence on Bruch’s death, spokesman Enrique Knell said the governor and State Fair management were on top of the situation.
“The governor has called for a thorough investigation by the N.M. State Police. Once that’s done, future decisions will be made by Expo management, with input from the Governor’s Office,” Knell wrote in an email. “In the meantime, Gov. Martinez has ordered Expo N.M. to suspend any similar events, and this has led to at least one concert not moving forward.
“As for meeting schedules,” he said, “those are up to State Fair commissioners to decide.”
Kennedy, the chairman of the commission and the vice president of an Albuquerque engineering firm, declined my request for an interview but sent me an email. He said the commission meets “when issues affecting the operation of the State Fair require action by the Commission.”
And he said, “Daily operations, including leasing Expo grounds for entertainment, are the responsibility of State Fair management. It would be impractical and improper for the commission to attempt to manage the daily operations of Expo.”
The state statute setting out the duties of the commission says, in part, “The commission, among other duties, shall prepare, adopt, publish and enforce all necessary rules for the management of the New Mexico State Fair, its meetings and exhibitions and for the guidance of its officers, employees and exhibitors.” It also says the commission “shall have the care of its property and be entrusted with the entire direction of its business and its financial affairs.”
And according to Expo New Mexico’s own website, “By statute, the State Fair Commission is responsible for the annual State Fair and all related activities and properties that pertain to it and to Expo New Mexico.”
Everything inside the walls bordered by Central and Lomas and San Pedro and Louisiana, the Expo New Mexico grounds, is state property: It’s owned by you and me. State Fair commissioners are appointed by the governor to serve the interests of the state of New Mexico. One of Martinez’s loudest campaign war cries was about government transparency, so while it’s nice to hear that she and fair management have everything under control, I’d rather see it. And see mothers and fathers and fairgrounds neighbors have an opportunity to weigh in on what policies should govern events on the fairgrounds.
What Rode, a governor’s appointee, is asking for – a public meeting to talk about public policy – doesn’t seem unreasonable.
In my experience covering the State Fair Commission under Govs. King, Johnson and Richardson, the commission met to discuss the public’s business when its members got along and also when some of its members disliked one another. That seems like a tall order for this commission, considering Kennedy’s parting shot: “I do not believe it is necessary to hold an emergency meeting to allow Commissioner Rode to use this tragedy as a platform to grandstand.”