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Hernando fair board has a long way to go to regain public trust

Fortunately, at least some Hernando County Fair Association board members realize they have a problem.

During a meeting last week, they talked a lot about the need for transparency and "clearing the air."

They seemed to accept the findings of a report from their own investigative committee that blasted some board members for shoddy record keeping and an inability to produce financial reports.

Best of all, the board agreed it needs to follow this committee's recommendation and immediately find an accountant to perform an audit.

"It is the duty of board members to not only avoid improper conduct but also the appearance of impropriety. Failure to take this duty seriously can result in a lack of trust by the general public," the committee report said.

Sounds good — exactly right, in fact.

Too bad it was at odds with so much of the rest of the meeting, especially the part when board members had to disclose any potential conflicts of interest.

Another way of putting this: board members doing business with the association. If restoring public confidence is the goal, it has to stop immediately.

One member, Joy Leininger, sold the fair the sheep used for its miniature rodeo, the Mutton Bustin' Contest.

Another member, Brooksville lawyer Elliott Ambrose, the primary author of the investigative report, has an arrangement that won't do much to foster the public trust he wrote about. As a member of the entertainment committee, he helped hire his own act, the Tyler Creek Road Band, to perform at the fair.

Board member David Hope gets a 50 percent discount on the price he pays to hold his weekly Stable Faith Cowboy Church at the fairgrounds.

True, the amounts in question are mostly small, though I can't be totally sure in Ambrose's case because he declined to answer questions and had an office assistant refer me to Sandra Nicholson, the fair's former board president and current spokeswoman. She said about the value of these deals what she often says about the details of fair operations:

"I don't know."

Hope said he did not realize the $100 per week he pays is a discounted rate and that he had been quoted this price several months before he was elected to the board.

Leininger said she sold the sheep to the board for the same amount for which she bought them, $1,100, and was paid $489 for the feed and hay she fed them while boarding them at her property.

That leads us to a deal that, for a group the size of the fair association, definitely is not small.

Richard Klimas, the husband of treasurer Shari Klimas, is the go-to guy for the association's mowing and maintenance work. Two years ago, according to tax documents, this earned him a total of $65,000 while his son, Casey, received $7,000.

Klimas said he will make less than that total this year because he holds no contracts for major jobs — just his usual one that grants him $2,800 per month, year around, to mow the grounds, as well as use of the association's mower.

He is also paid $15 per hour for any other duties. His son gets $10 per hour for cleaning, and his wife gets occasional use of the association's pickup.

And because Richard Klimas built up a credit with the fair by repairing its arena several years ago, he just taps into this when he uses the venue for his for-profit tractor pulls and tractor races.

County Commissioner Nick Nicholson, who attended the meeting as the commission's liaison to the fair board, took it upon himself to determine whether there was a problem with any of the members' arrangements.

He asked if the beneficiaries of these deals had taken part in the votes that had approved them. When told they had not, he loudly declared, each time, "That's NOT a conflict!"

By the standard usually applied to public boards, he may be right.

But, first of all, he's got his own conflict issue — he's Sandra's ex-husband and current friend — and should not be the one making this determination.

Second, depending on how it's interpreted, he might be ignoring the line in the association's bylaws that states, "Members will not be compensated for service on this board."

Finally, even that's not the standard. It's the one the board set for itself, to carefully avoid any behavior that "can result in a lack of trust."

At this point, that trust is long gone.

Hernando fair board has a long way to go to regain public trust 02/18/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 7:18pm]
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