It’s not likely a typical meeting of the Nevada County Fair’s board of directors often draws an audience like the turnout Thursday, for which the top topic on the agenda was discussion of the controversial “Elephant exhibit at the 2013 Nevada County Fair.”
And that’s why it was so disappointing that there wasn’t an actual discussion by board members on the topic.
To be clear, there was no shortage of opinions shared on the elephant rides that “Have Trunk Will Travel” has been contracted to provide. As reported in Friday’s edition of The Union, nearly 40 people spoke about the exhibit — some in favor, though most against — which fairgrounds CEO Sandy Woods said was brought about as a “fun addition” to this year’s fair theme, “Under the Big Top.”
People spoke passionately on both sides, some taking issue with what they perceive as abusive treatment of the elephants, along with safety concerns over the animals posing a danger to the fair-going public if they managed to escape the control of the contractor. Others spoke in support of the group hired to handle the exhibit. The executive director of the Western Fairs Association warned the board that caving on the contract could lead to a “slippery slope” in which all animal-human interaction could face a ban.
Yet when the public’s passionate commentary came to an end, it was followed by the silence of a nine-member board.
Board members did not reconsider their vote on the matter and also did not offer any response to their constituents who had felt so moved to both attend and share their opinions. And unfortunately, the decision not to speak resulted in some feeling as though they’d just attended nothing more than a dog-and-pony show. A comment by the board president prior to the public commentary left some believing such a perception is based in reality. Tom Browning told the crowd before the public spoke that if no motion was made by board members, that meant the contract with Have Trunk Will Travel would remain in place — which is what happened.
“They were certainly welcome to give their opinion,” Browning told The Union after the meeting. “Their silence told me they were in favor of continuing the contract.”
That silence, however, told others in attendance something else.
“They had their decision made before anyone got up to talk,” Kathy Wronski told The Union. “They totally ignored us.”
At a time when trust in government is hitting all-time lows, governing bodies should recognize the result of not being responsive to the public they serve. Far too often, members of governing bodies don’t feel compelled to speak to the rationale for decisions they’ve made, which only creates a vacuum — often left to be filled by someone’s perception as opposed to actual fact — due to a lack of information provided. Elected officials or those appointed — in the case of the fair board, appointments made by the governor — not only have a responsibility to vote yea or nay on an issue but also to communicate why they did so to the citizenry they serve.
Few fairs are held in such high regard by their community and serve as such a top tourist attraction for those in neighboring counties, as the Nevada County Fair. Once declared as “the most beautiful fair in California” by our state Senate, our fair brings our community together for an annual celebration seldom seen elsewhere. The elephant exhibit is not the first controversial issue to hit the Nevada County Fair, which was established all the way back in 1884, but it is disappointing that the issue could potentially still be an extremely divisive one when the fair opens its gates in August.
As soon as Thursday’s meeting came to an end, social media began to buzz with the word “boycott,” which is extremely disappointing for an event that according to the fair, annually draws an average of 90,000 people beneath those beautiful tall pines. The fair’s economic impact on our community goes far beyond the contracted companies operating the exhibits, the gate receipts that buoy the fair’s bottom line or even the local merchants who stand to make money, as the livelihood of a large number of nonprofit organizations are dependent upon proceeds from the booths they operate there.
The Union has long been and will continue to be a strong supporter of the Nevada County Fair.
But we strongly suggest, considering the chatter about boycotts, protests and the potential negative impact on this cherished community celebration, that the fair’s board members offer a response on the rationale for their decision — before a real circus breaks out.
This editorial represents the viewpoints of The Union editorial board, which consists of members of The Union staff and informed members of the community.