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Three Ferndale residents witness Vegas slaughter

From the October 5, 2017 print edition

A trio of Ferndale residents are back home after a harrowing trip to Las Vegas where they witnessed Sunday’s slaughter of 58 people attending a country music festival.

Dustin Del Biaggio, a Humboldt County Sheriff Deputy; his girlfriend, Ferndale Police Officer Tierra Shumard, as well as Ferndale resident Beth Coppini were all at the concert at Mandalay Bay on Sunday evening. None of the three responded to requests for interviews.

The Humboldt Deputy Sheriff’s Organization issued a press release on Wednesday morning which included Del Biaggo’s thoughts and recollections of the events.

Del Biaggio and his girlfriend, Officer Shumard — who has been a member of the FPD since December — were near the front of the crowd at the mass shooting.

“It was during the last performer of the night. We got to the show early, so we had made our way to the front of the stage,” said Del Biaggio. “At one point, we heard what sounded like firecrackers, that’s what the audience thought it was. Shortly after that, they started again, and we started to see people drop in front of us.

“Time doesn’t really add up, but we dropped to the ground and I covered up Tierra. We waited until the gunfire stopped and started to run towards the back. As we were running, there was another burst of gunfire as we were about halfway to the exit. People were calling to ‘cover up the women,’ and a few people jumped on us to shield us from the gunfire.

“When it stopped again, we made our way to the back of the venue where some people had already pushed out the back wall of a bar.

“Around this time we ran into a LVPD officer who told us, ‘Mandalay Bay, 15th floor.’ “In retrospect, this information [on the presumed location of the shooter] was key in keeping us safe, since we avoided the line of fire from that point on.

“We came out of the building in a strange parking lot full of semi-trucks. This was when I had a chance to pull up a map on my phone of the surrounding area to get my bearings.

“This is when we finally had a chance to call our parents, to let them know we were OK and find out what was happening.

“The community was amazing. Uber and Lyft drivers were just picking people up. We saw a girl in shock whose father had been shot and went with her to the hospital in an Uber that stopped for us. There was no selfishness, everyone was helping.

“I can honestly say that tunnel vision kicked in, the stress response was incredible. I can’t remember the emotion on people’s faces, screams, any of that. I can only remember gunfire, and the silence when it wasn’t there.

“I really think that my Law Enforcement Officer training was instrumental in the whole thing. When it happened, I really felt that the training came back, the feeling of take cover, all the things they teach you made a difference. It was a tough feeling being in the civilian role, not able to help, but looking back our training helped to keep us safe.

“We are doing OK, but I definitely have pangs of shock, disbelief, confusion and especially sadness for the victims, people that can’t come home.” Meanwhile,

Ferndale’s Beth Coppini returned to Ferndale on Monday. Her fiance, local dairyman Tom Ghidinelli said he was supposed to accompany Coppini to the concern but went to a wedding instead.

“She is pretty shook up,” said Ghidinelli, adding that Coppini’s son “got pretty cut up jumping over a fence and hiding in a bunker at the airport. “Pretty traumatic for her. She saw people get shot and go down.” Ghidinelli said that his girlfriend told him that “people really helped out” during the attack and in the aftermath. “It’s going to take awhile to get over it.”

Meanwhile, Ferndale Police Chief Bret Smith said that officer Shumard attended a debriefing on Tuesday regarding the shooting.

Ferndale Rep’s “Little Shop of Horrors” is a must-see musical

From the October 5 print edition

By Emily Silver

Enterprise arts editor


Skid. Row. Vagrants hanging out idly among dilapidated empty buildings? Vacant lots? Seedy taverns? The plot and themes of “Little Shop of Horrors,” currently in production at Ferndale Repertory Theatre, depend heavily on the idea of transcending Skid Row. Mushnick’s Flower Shop is peopled by characters such as the disillusioned Mushnick himself (played straightforwardly here by Warren W. Hardison), his rescue-project Seymour, and Audrey the desperate salesgirl. Their only wealth is hope. And, it turns out, a carnivorous plant.


In 1960, Roger Corman had wrapped up shooting for his “Bucket of Blood,” but he still had some time before his sets were dismantled. A quick brainstorm with “Chuck” Griffith and Sally Kellerman yielded a plot to fit the set and “Little Shop of Horrors” was born. Corman employed Jonathan Haze for Seymour and a young Jack Nicholson (back when he had hair) as a pain-loving dental patient. The black and white film was produced in two days and eventually outshone “Bucket of Blood” in popularity. The musical premiered in New York in 1982 with Howard Ashman’s book and lyrics and music by Alan Menken, and the 1986 film featured Steve Martin, Rick Moranis, and Ellen Greene.


The complex set expertly designed by Cecilia Beaton and painted by Raymond Gutierrez emphasizes depth and makes for dynamic staging. Our view is a cross section of the shop from within; the door of the shop opens beneath a bridge. The tall towers of the city are lit by a changing sky at stage right (lighting by Michael Foster). Closer to us downstage boarded-up doorways, stoops, and a fire escapes provide vertical interest.


Who buys flowers on Skid Row? Mushnick’s shop seems destined for failure. But when the product of Seymour’s plant experiments, Audrey II, is displayed in the window, suddenly customers begin to flock in. Success is in the air, but at what price? The plant swells ominously each time she’s fed. A sequence of fleshy puppets, created by Intermission Productions (“You Dream It, We Seam It”), is effectively manipulated by stage combat expert Jeff Cooper. And yes, the plant speaks and sings the blues in a rockin’ bass voiced by Craig Woods.


This is Alexandra Blouin’s debut as a director. Her multi-faceted talents were evident in “Boeing! Boeing,” “Bat Boy,”  and “Beauty and the Beast” among others and she brings them together successfully here. Blouin’s dedicated discipline is evident in her ability to handle the layered concerns of this musical: a complicated set, constantly changing lighting, choreography, music, and puppets. Not to mention inspiring the actors. And deciding how to deal with graphic violence. Nothing to worry about. Skillfully, Blouin has refrained from overrunning the production with violence. While the maleficent plant enlists Seymour to hack folks up so she can “grow,” we’re spared the view of the hacking. Only a few fake bloody body parts show up onstage. Considering whose they’re meant to be, we’re glad to see it.


Lucius Robinson is a quintessential bad guy. While Steve Martin tackled the role of Orin Scrivello, D.D.S. in the 1986 film version, I honestly can’t imagine a more quintessentially evil “Doctor” than Robinson’s. Raising frowning eyebrows, pulling up to a grotesque grin, cutting loose with that sinister laugh, and gesturing with the dental drill all help the audience anticipate his demise. Later, Robinson morphs comfortably into brief “other roles,” demonstrating tremendous versatility and costume-change agility, most memorably when he appears in drag as a Life magazine rep.


Audrey II starts getting lively with blood from a mere finger-prick, but her increasing appetite augurs poorly for all the characters– except, thankfully, the three sirens Ronette (Emma Johnstone), Chiffon (Jessie Rawson), and Crystal (Stevie-Alexis Maquez). From the very first moment, this Greek-style chorus enlivens every scene with their bright costumes (way too fashionable for Skid Row, really) and ironic commentaries. Introducing themselves as fifth-grade dropouts, wielding cigarettes and Brooklyn accents, Johnstone, Rawson, and Maquez convey wonderful style and unity, in part thanks to their flashy costumes designed by costume mistress Cindy Shepard. Their lusty voices synchronize perfectly with the accompanying piano licks by Laura Welch. Individual “head things” and Elvis sneers spark their performances in a campy way.


Jessica Kaufman as Audrey personifies longing and a vision for a better life. She dresses impeccably and dates a dentist who beats her up. She also helps locate the play in the 1960s, idealizing Levittown, Lucy, Donna Reed, Howdy Doody, and living in a tract home in the ironic ballad “Somewhere That’s Green.”


Poor little Seymour is dwarfed by Audrey. As played by Morgan Cox, he’s content to be pathetic: “I started life as an orphan, a child of the street here on skid row,” he sings. Mushnick “took me in, gave me shelter, a bed, . . . and a job. Treats me like dirt, calls me a slob. . .which I am.” With his almost liquid facial muscles, receding chin, timid stature, and light tenor voice I can’t imagine anyone nailing Seymour better than Cox–not surprising since Cox has aimed for this role ever since he was nine. It’s uncanny what a great fit it is.


It’s a challenge to synchronize and tune up even a house orchestra with what’s going on onstage. And never mind that the voice and movements of one of the characters are covered by separate actors. Music and Vocal Directors David Powell and Laura Welch are nowhere to be seen, but they create a powerful presence. Welch’s invisible piano is audible in a big way without dominating, and the actors’ voices are aligned with it seemingly miraculously.


Regular visitors to Ferndale Repertory Theatre will note this summer’s remodel has transformed and modernized the interior. Improvements include a roomy new concession area, video screens identifying the players in the lobby, and new seating with clear sightlines and, best of all . . . cup holders! The new sound system enables actors to wear almost-invisible mics. Many thanks to The Kurt Feuerman Foundation, Ferndale Rotary Club, the McLean Foundation, and many private donors for funding this upgrade.


“Little Shop of Horrors” is another in a sequence of productions that showcases Ferndale Repertory Theatre as a go-to source for satisfying musical theatre. We’re so lucky to have them on the North Coast. As Tim Curry said, “The way the world is, I think a silly evening in the theatre is a good thing, to take our minds off terror.” “Little Shop of Horrors,” plays now through October 29 on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 447 Main in Ferndale. Check out their website at or call them at 707-786-5483.

Council fast tracks marijuana ordinance

First reading planned for October 18; little public input at workshop

From the October 5, 2017 print edition

The Ferndale City Council at its special meeting at Town Hall on Tuesday decided to accelerate the process of approving an ordinance regulating recreational marijuana activities in the city.

With stepped-up efforts to approve the new ordinance as soon as possible, the council hopes to position the city so that its ordinance is in effect should the State of California begin issuing licenses prior to January 1, 2018.

Proposition 64, referred to as The Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), was approved by California voters in November 2016, legalizing use of recreational marijuana and created a state regulated licensing system for cultivation, testing, manufacturing and distribution of non-medical marijuana. According to the voter-approved legislation, January 1, 2018 was set as the date when the state would start issuing licenses. In order to regulate the new law, local jurisdictions like Ferndale would be required to have an ordinance in place by that time. Local officials, however, want to move as quickly as possible in case the state starts issuing licenses prior to the January 1 start date.

“Technically, they have the ability to issue licenses now, but they’re not completely set up,” said Ferndale Mayor Don Hindley. “And, there’s been some talk about possibly, in late 2017, start issuing licenses. If we don’t have our ordinance done and in place for 30 days, we may lose our ability to get the ordinance in.”

City Manager Jay Parrish also recommended that the council move as fast as possible to get the ordinance through the required two readings, plus the required 30-day waiting period.

“That’s why we think we need to get this done as soon as possible,” said Parrish. “Kris (City Clerk Kristene Hall) and I would recommend we have the first reading (at the October 18 council meeting), and then, as quickly as possible—which I think is two weeks— we could have a second reading.”

The council also discussed how the new recreational marijuana ordinance would replace a previous ordinance that dealt only with medical marijuana use in the city. With the new ordinance, anyone growing marijuana for medical purposes would fall under the same regulations as recreational grows, according to the draft ordinance.

“My understanding is that people that might be currently growing medical marijuana with a 215 card would be subject to these same provisions, in terms of getting a permit,” said Councilman Michael Sweeney. “But, how would the ordinance apply with anyone (already) growing with a 215?”

Mayor Hindley provided an explanation.

“ They basically would have to tell us they’re growing,” said Hindley. “Before, when they got the 215 card, all they had to do was go to any doctor in Arcata and once they had a 215 card they didn’t have to come to the city.”

The parts of the proposed ordinance relating to transporting marijuana was also discussed by the council, with Councilman Doug Brower offering his concerns.

“One of the things the ordinance doesn’t address is transportation,” said Brower.

Mayor Hindley once again provided clarification. “It addresses it in the fact that it can’t originate here,” said Hindley. “You can’t transport it from outside the city of Ferndale and have it end up in the city of Ferndale.”

Brower stated that his concerns related to a commercial marijuana grow application (see last week’s Enterprise) that had been submitted to the County of Humboldt for parcels of land east of Brower’s home.

“My example being at the end of Eugene (Street),” said Brower. “That’s county— can they come through with a U-Haul truck? What’s our enforcement?”

Brower was reminded that the ordinance could not restrict the use of public roads for transporting marijuana, but could restrict its final destination from landing in Ferndale.

Other than a representative from The Enterprise, only two members of the public attended the special meeting. The meeting was the second consecutive council meeting attended by Ferndale residents Tim and Margaret Griggs, who arrived just minutes before the meeting concluded. At the September 20 city council meeting, the Griggses spoke in opposition to an ordinance, approved on a 3-2 vote that night, regulating vacation rentals in Ferndale. The September meeting was the only time the Griggses participated in discussions of the vacation rental ordinance, a process that involved multiple meetings over a nine-month process.

Mrs. Griggs asked at Tuesday’s meeting about the proposed ordinance limiting the number of plants (six) that a person with a license and permit could grow in Ferndale.

“I was looking through it and I feel pretty good about a lot of it,” said Griggs. “The six plant rule— is there a reason we have to go with that? Can’t ask for zero?”

Mayor Hindley said that the ordinance would very likely be ruled null and void if the number was anything less than six.

“OK,” said Griggs. “Bummer.”

After reviewing the proposed ordinance the council approved by consensus to move forward with its first reading at the October 18 Town Hall meeting.

Initial fair revenues drop below budgeted numbers

Expenses still being tallied; board meets Monday

From the September 21, 2017 print edition

Initial revenue numbers for the 2017 Humboldt County Fair are down from what fair association directors had hoped to earn this year.

With the fair running this year from August 23-September 4 — while most county students had returned to the classroom — draft revenue numbers in certain key areas are off double digit percentages from what was budgeted by the fair association earlier this year.

Commissions earned by the fair from concession revenue, according to draft figures provided by the fair association, show a 35 percent drop from what the fair board budgeted.  Commissions from food and non-food concessionaires totaled $110,790. The fair board had hoped to earn $170,000 — about $9,000 less than what it earned last year with one less day of fair. Entry fees from the fair’s exhibit program came in at $11,005 compared to the $20,000 the fair board had hoped to earn, as it did the prior year.

Unaudited admission revenue, as reported in last week’s edition, totaled $255,473. The fair board budgeted to earn $272,000 in ticket sales. Pre-sale admissions totaled $39,300 — a 36 percent drop from the $61,000 budgeted. Carnival revenue totaled $137,003 — just slightly below the $145,000 budgeted. Parking revenue showed a 10.54 percent drop, earning the fair association $58,037 compared to the $69,000 budgeted. Sponsorship revenue — according to draft figures — show the fair association receiving $190,000 in cash donations, compared to the $200,000 budgeted.

The fair’s Lisa Hindley said in an email that figures for money earned from racing concessions are not complete, but should be in by the end of the month. The fair board budgeted $139,000 for the concession commissions — just $700 less that what was earned in 2016. The fair association board of directors will now wait for expenses from the annual event to be tallied.

According to the association’s 2017 budget, fair management has planned on cutting expenses over $100,000 after going over budget by about the same amount last year. The budget calls for increasing revenues for the year by $25,000. However, the total in anticipated revenues released in draft numbers by the association show a drop so far of $135,528. Not reportable as of yet are the commissions earned from the fair’s horse racing program. This year’s seven-day meet saw the same number of races as last year’s six-day meet. Eighty-five percent of the fair association’s revenue is earned during the annual fair. The other 15 percent is earned from interim rentals of the fairgrounds buildings and camping fees. The fair association also receives state general fund money each year.

This year, the fair association will also receive $30,000 from the California Authority of Racing Fairs (CARF) — a public joint powers authority of which the association belongs to. CARF also paid $33,000 this year for a new inner track rail for the fair. Earlier this year, CARF’s interim Executive Director Larry Swartzlander reported that the Humboldt County Fair is in “financial duress.”  CARF’s Live Racing Committee Chairman John Alkire stressed to local fair representatives that the fair “should be working hard to maximize community fundraising events,” as well as look at raising the sales tax to support the fair. The fair association board agendas have not included any items relating to a possible sales tax measure.

The fair board meets Monday night, beginning at 7 pm at the fair’s board room on Fifth Street.

Newspaper files legal action seeking public records and open meetings

Wants fair board meetings back under public meeting law and minutes from fair board meetings

From the September 14, 2017 print edition

This newspaper filed two lawsuits in Humboldt County Superior Court on Monday seeking the Humboldt County Fair Association (HCFA) board of directors to open its meetings to the public and for the County of Humboldt to make public the minutes of the fair board’s meetings.

HCFA’s General Manager Richard Conway and the county’s legal counsel did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Historically, the fair board has followed the Ralph M. Brown Act — the state law governing public meetings. In 2015, when the fair changed its tax classification from an affiliate of a local agency to a private non-profit, the board began doing most of its business behind closed doors. The Enterprise’s lawyer asked the fair board to voluntarily follow the public meeting law in an effort to avoid another round of litigation. The board refused, forcing the newspaper to file suit.

“As far as I know, HCFA is the only county fair board that doesn’t follow the Brown Act, doesn’t notify the public of actions HCFA intends on taking and doesn’t allow the public to participate in those decisions so that bad decisions that negatively impact the public can be prevented,” said The Enterprise’s attorney Paul Nicholas Boylan, an attorney who specializes in government transparency litigation. “The Enterprise is seeking a court order requiring HCFA to follow the Brown Act so that the community can take part in fair board decisions with the same rights as other California citizens throughout the state.”

Meanwhile, the lease between the county and the HCFA (Lease Agreement) states that the county can request fair board minutes from its meetings.  The Enterprise filed a California Public Records Act request with the county, seeking those minutes. The county refused to provide them.

“The county controls access to the records The Enterprise wants to examine but refuses to instruct the county fair board to provide The Enterprise with these records. The Enterprise is asking the court for an order requiring the county to satisfy its duty to the public and instruct HCFA to provide The Enterprise with copies of records the public wants to examine,” said Boylan.

The Enterprise twice has succeeded through litigation to make the HCFA provide financial documents to the public, per its agreement with the county. The HCFA’s insurance provider paid the legal bills to defend it during the first lawsuit. The second time around, the provider declined to pay the HCFA’s attorney bills.

Editorial: Hidden agendas

From the September 14, 2017 print edition

Once again, we’re scratching our heads when it comes to the Humboldt County Fair board. Why would the 18 members decide to hunker down and not operate under the state’s public meeting law — like the board did for decades — and instead choose to spend precious resources on attorney fees to keep the public from being informed and part of the decision-making process when it comes to the future of our beloved public fairgrounds and fair?

Out of the dozens of county and state fairs in California, 99 percent follow the state’s public meeting laws to make sure the public is informed and has an opportunity to comment on important decisions made on the public’s behalf.

Take for instance recent controversial events held or nearly held at the fairgrounds. The public did not get to listen or contribute to the decision-making process regarding the proposed pot festival, which the Ferndale police chief eventually snuffed out. The public was not part of the decision-making process regarding two loud motorized sporting events that impacted the town both positively and negatively. We don’t know about you, but we’re not willing to put our blind faith in the 18 members on that board or the general manager . . . especially considering our front page story this week where we point out another case of disingenuous behavior coming from the fair’s front office. The list is long.

Fair directors will likely tell you that fair board meetings are open. Again, disingenuous.

As soon as this newspaper’s attorney requested that the fair association go back under the Ralph M. Brown Act, the fair board opened up a portion of its meetings where the public could sit it. The majority of its business, however, is still done behind closed doors.

The Brown Act requires local entities to post their board meeting agendas, list all their business items to be discussed, allow for public comment on each item and inspect the writings of the public entity. Of course, there are times when a board needs to retreat behind closed doors and the Brown Act allows for that. Personnel items, litigation and property negotiations are all examples of issues that can be discussed in private.

Meanwhile, if you want to read the association’s minutes from the past two-and-a-half years, good luck. Despite the lease between the county and the fair association stating that the county can request the minutes at anytime, the county won’t do so. We know. We tried. We asked the county to obtain the minutes from the fair board and they would not. Hence, our legal action this week against the County of Humboldt in an attempt to get the county to do the right thing by shedding light on the fair board’s activities regarding running and maintaining a 65-acre publicly-owned property within the city limits of Ferndale.

The fair board operates a public facility, receives and spends public funds, is insured by a public agency, its budget is approved by the county, its funds are held in the county coffers, it is regulated by the state of California — including all horse-racing activity — and its year-end financials are approved by the state, including details of how many fair tickets are given away each year due to a state law that puts a limit on how many complimentary tickets can be handed out. Simply put, we believe legally it is a defacto local agency that belongs under public meeting laws. We end this editorial with one simple question. What is the fair board hiding?

Numbers contradict fair manager’s statements that attendance was up

Attendance not up eight percent, per Richard Conway’s statement; actual numbers show 11.05 percent decrease

From the September 14, 2017 print edition

Eleven percent fewer people attended the 12-day Humboldt County Fair, that concluded on Labor Day, than the 11-day 2016 fair. According to the attendance and parking reports from the 2017 event, 38,242 people paid to attend the fair compared to 42,991 in 2016 with the fair last year open for one day less.

Fair manager Richard Conway was quoted in the Times-Standard on September 6 stating that attendance at the fair was up eight percent. It was actually down 11.05 percent.  (Read the daily attendance reports here.)  2017 HCF Daily Fair Reports Aug 23-27 HCFA 2017 Fair Admissions Report Day 6-13

Conway did not respond to a request for comment on the attendance numbers.

“We had a few light days Tuesday through Thursday and it picked up on the weekend but overall it was strong,” the newspaper quoted Conway as stating.

During the first week of the fair, which opened on a Wednesday instead of a Thursday, the middle of the week attendance actually increased, compared to the prior year. Friday through Sunday, 661 more people paid to attend the fair than in 2016, resulting in a four percent increase over 2016 in attendance during the first weekend.

During the second week, when all county school students had returned to school, the middle-of-the week attendance dropped 55 percent compared to the prior year. The second weekend of the fair (Friday through Sunday) attendance dropped 21 percent compared to ‘16.

Attendance revenue collected at the gate fell below the fair association’s budgeted figure of $272,000, coming in at $255,473 but was more than the $236,000 collected in 2016 because the fair association charged $2 more per general admission at the front gate, while eliminating a $3 cost to get into the races. That $3 ticket generated $31,426 last year — money that will not show up on the fair’s books this year, resulting in an overall loss of admission revenue of $20,715 or 6.54 percent. Not made public yet is the total amount of pre-sale tickets sold.

Conway made the motion at a California Authority of Racing Fairs meeting last February to move the 2017 Humboldt County Fair to later in the year when students had returned to school. He gambled that by agreeing to run the fair’s horse racing meet later in the year and over the Labor Day weekend, the fair would get more lucrative stand-alone racing dates from the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB). His gamble failed in December when the state assigned the August 23-September 4.

Conway was quoted in last week’s Times-Standard as stating that the fair association “has no control” over the dates.

Negotiations for 2018 racing dates for the Humboldt County Fair and other live racing entities are already underway. The CHRB is anticipated to discuss them at its September 28 meeting at Los Alamitos Race Course in Southern California.

Meanwhile, as for the financial outcome of the 2017 Humboldt County Fair, the public and fair association directors will have to wait until later in the year when all revenues and expenses have been accounted for. The association, in its annual budget, plans to increase its operating reserve from $209,343 at the start of the year to $314,343 at the end of the year. ( HCFA 2017 Budget ) It began 2013 with approximately $500,000 in its operating reserve. (2014 HCFA budget.)The lease between the County of Humboldt, which owns the fairgrounds, and the fair association, states that all of the fair’s financial records are public documents. The Enterprise has successfully litigated twice against the association to enforce those terms and to keep the association’s financial documents public.

(Disclosure: The Enterprise publisher/editor is married to a past HCFA GM.)

Fewer horses, local betting down at fair

Fair’s attorney says racing meet “could make it” in late August/Labor Day 

From the September 7, 2017 print edition

Seven days of horse racing at the Humboldt County Fair overall produced the same results as six days last year, according to early numbers released this week.

Meanwhile, on-track betting showed a double-digit decline over last year and fewer horses entered races. Those results have some questioning the future of the fair’s racing program.

According to preliminary data provided by the California Horse Racing Information Management, Inc. (CHRIMS), on-track wagering by local fans decreased by $77,255 this year, dropping from $615,420 to $538,165 for a 12.5 percent drop. Wagering on Humboldt’s races at satellite facilities in California also showed a decrease, declining from $899,958 in 2016 to $744,295 this year for a drop of 17 percent. A decrease in advanced deposit wagering — betting on the internet — (dropping from $192,570 to $187,389) also contributed to an overall decline of in-state wagering on Ferndale races of 14 percent ($1,469,528 this year compared to $1,707,948 in 2016).

The only positive indication coming from the CHRIMS report was reflected in out-of-state wagering activity that showed a 23 percent increase ($1,218,507 vs. $1,498,525), bringing the overall, preliminary total handle to $2,968,377 this year, compared to $2,926,454 in 2016, for a one-percent increase.

Such were the results of a meet that included the additional cost of one more race day (seven days this year, versus six last year), produced the same number of total races (50), and a per-race decrease in on-track wagering of $1,545.

Short fields of horses, made even worse with race-day scratches — several races had only four horses entered with one race seeing only three approach the gate — played a key role in decreased wagering, according to program officials. Calculations show that the average starters per race dropped from 6.06 in 2016 to 5.5 this year.

“What happens when you card too many fives (five-horse fields) like that, is you then get too many scratches,” said HCF Racing Secretary Tom Doutrich — an employee of the California Authority of Racing Fairs — during a local ESPN radio interview Monday night in front of The Ivanhoe. “We have very little going our way, very little from the CHRB (California Horse Racing Board). And, if it doesn’t change, we’re in trouble.”

HCF General Manager Richard Conway did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Doutrich was speaking about the process by which the CHRB allocates racing dates in California each year and the odds of Humboldt receiving at least one week not run simultaneously with any other Northern California race track or fair next year.

“The whole problem starts with the CHRB,” said Doutrich. “The State of California owns the racing dates and we’re the bottom-level fair. We’re trying to hang in there and we’re doing all the calculations to stay alive.”

Keeping the HCF alive was a matter addressed by others invited by local broadcaster, Tag Wotherspoon, to participate in Monday’s show.

“We need to get unoverlapped,” said horse owner Allen Aldrich, who currently serves on the board of directors of the Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC). “The TOC are a southern-based group and they don’t give any importance to Northern California. When I get home, I’ll be filling out some paperwork to send to the governor, because I would love to be on the CHRB and, hopefully, get something done at that level.”

Aldrich was referring to Governor Jerry Brown, whose many responsibilities include appointing people to serve on the CHRB.

While the wagering numbers showed noticeable declines this year, this year’s fair running later in the year and through Labor Day weekend — coinciding with county students return to school — was not construed as a negative, according to one fair representative.

“I think we could make it on this late-August, early September thing,” said James Morgan, a Walnut Creek resident and attorney who has represented the fair on a pro-bono basis in horse racing matters since 2012. “The people from the Bay Area want to come up here and escape the heat.”

While hoping to somehow receive unoverlapped dates next year, Morgan also recognized the difficult political and economic hurdles that must be cleared in the process.

“I think we’re at the mercy of the CHRB and the calendar,” said Morgan. “We don’t have enough clout because the TOC and CTT (California Thoroughbred Trainers) see the numbers are better when Golden Gate Fields (GGF) runs.”

GGF is the privately owned one-mile racetrack in Berkeley that runs simultaneously with Humboldt and generates more money industry-wide during that two-week period than the HCF does at its half-mile oval.

“When the horse racing game becomes a calculation in numbers and they say everybody bets more on GGF, rather than the HCF—therefore Humboldt shouldn’t be unoverlapped— we have a challenge that’s hard statistically to get over,” said Morgan.

Humboldt was successful in receiving one week of exclusive race dates in 2010, when former fair GM, Stuart Titus, was able to get a favorable 4-3 vote from the CHRB, giving the HCF one week unoverlapped. Titus’s success in 2010 created windfall profits for the HCF that led the way to a financial turn-around for the organization. Strong industry pushback, however, returned Humboldt to running simultaneously with GGF since that time, as overall statewide losses to the industry due to the HCF running solo in 2010 totaled approximately $800,000. In the intervening years, Titus was able to negotiate agreements with various industry stakeholders, so that the HCF’s bottom line could be sustained. When Titus was let go by the HCF Board of Directors in early 2013, the organization’s operating reserve showed a balance of approximately $500,000. Those reserves have plummeted by almost 60 percent since Titus’s departure and the previously negotiated stakeholders agreements were made null and void in 2016 when GGF decided it could no longer subsidize the HCF program.

Although this year’s move by the HCF to a Labor Day finale and an added day of racing failed to produce favorable results, some fair representatives considered the decision as a positive move.

“If we don’t get unoverlapped (dates), the HCF will still survive as a racing fair because of the tenacity and determination of people like you (Wotherspoon, Doutrich and Aldrich) that support the fair, and the fact we can become the Saratoga, the Del Mar of the Oregon circuit, because even though we have diminishing purses, we’re still three times what Tillamook is, right?” said Morgan.

Morgan was referring to the summer fair racing circuit in Oregon that includes one weekend in the coastal community of Tillamook.

According to comments on the Monday radio broadcast, 40 to 50 percent of horses entered in the 2017 HCF race meet were from the Oregon, Washington and Idaho areas. Conway, in the fair’s racing application to the CHRB earlier this year, said the fair anticipated offering the public 12 races a day. Instead, an average of seven races a day were offered.

The next meeting of the CHRB is scheduled for September 28 in Los Alamitos, when it’s expected that 2018 race dates will next be discussed.

(Disclosure: Former HCF general manager Stuart Titus is married to The Enterprise publisher and editor.)

Fair auction gross sales dip; on-track bets less than 2016

From the August 31 print edition

Chamber of commerce weather blessed the organizers of the Humboldt County Fair last weekend with gray skies returning the early part of this week to hover over a fair with very light attendance, due to county students being back in the classroom instead of on the carnival rides.

While fair manager Richard Conway did not respond to a request for fair attendance numbers or comment on the first week of fair, those in charge of putting on Sunday’s junior livestock auction did report that sales were down from last year’s record of 261 animals selling for $723,500 gross. This year, 249 animals were bought for gross sales total of $590,255. That total included a “number of add-ons” — additional cash given to young exhibitors, according to Humboldt County Fair Association director Mandy Marquez. Marquez said the total sales number could go up “slightly” with the calculation of additional “add-ons.

“It was another successful year at the junior livestock auction,” said Marquez. “We truly have the most generous community of supporters.”

Average price per pound for meat rabbits was $800; meat birds, $786.36; youth market lambs, $12.35; meat goats, $13.07; beef, $4.54; swine, $9.05.

For the first time in history, the fair was closed on Monday, which took some patrons by surprise and prompted them to comment on the fair’s Facebook site. On Tuesday and Wednesday, light attendance was noticeable, with all eyes looking toward Labor Day weekend and the hopes for more great weather and larger crowds.

On the racing side of the fair, three fewer races were written and filled the first three days of a seven-day racing schedule than in 2016, which offered six days of racing. This Friday’s race card, meanwhile, was noticeably light, with only six races offered — two of which were mule races and the rest with light entries. Saturday will offer seven races with four five-horse fields compared to ten races last year on the second Saturday. On-track betting was also down the first three days, according to the CHRIMS pari-mutuel information system, with an average of $8,966 bet locally on each race compared to $9,800 in 2017.

The fair was moved later in the year by Conway last April, after he made a motion at a California Authority of Racing Fairs meeting to change historic dates from mid-August to later in the month and into the Labor Day weekend. Conway was betting on getting in return lucrative stand-alone racing dates, but his bet failed and Ferndale’s races are once again overlapped by Golden Gate Fields in the Bay Area. Conway also told the California Horse Racing Board in the fair’s application for the racing meet, that he planned on having 12 races a day. For the first five days of a seven-day meet, however, the fair has offered an average of 6.8 races per day with an average starters (for the first three racing days) per race of 5.80.

Last-ditch push on to save small school funding for Ferndale High

From the August 31, 2017 print edition

If a last-ditch effort to secure up to $500,000 in small school funding from the state comes up short, Ferndale High School may have to shut its doors.

That’s the message new Ferndale Unified School District (FUSD) Superintendent Beth Anderson has sent to California Senator Mike McGuire after a late July trip to Sacramento and the state capitol to meet with McGuire’s staff, state Department of Finance representatives and representatives from the governor’s office.

“To maintain the current level of student services, without the additional funding, Ferndale USD falls into an unsustainable pattern of deficit spending,” Anderson wrote in a letter to McGuire. “If a solution is not found, teaching positions would have to be reduced to a point where the high school would no longer be educationally viable and the school would potentially have to close.”

The school district has for several years been attempting to secure approximately $400,000 to $500,000 the high school receives in Necessary Small School Funding (NSSF). The funding will end on June 30, 2018 — after several years of reprieve — and unless the funding is secured in budget language, five other similar small high schools in the state are out of luck. The funding was originally eliminated in 2013 for any high school with an average daily attendance of less than 301, if that school was “the only high school maintained by a unified school district.”

The district has been paying a Sacramento lobbying firm $1,000 per month for several years in an attempt to reinstate the NSSF but has, so far, not been successful.

“This has to be taken care of in the January budget because we have to do (layoff notices),” Anderson told trustees at their August 9 meeting. “If we want until June, you think, ‘oh, we solved it.’ But it’s too late. We’d have given layoff notices, maybe lose people you can’t get back and you’ve got moral that went down.”

January is the first opportunity to introduce a bill securing the funding. The governor, however, doesn’t sign a final budget until July. The affected high schools are hoping that McGuire will sponsor legislation to attempt to restore the funding. Anderson said McGuire, a democrat, was once a school board member and so he “gets” the school system. In addition, the senator is on a budget committee.

Anderson explained that the issue is one of “inequity” toward small rural schools.

“I know the focus (with the state) is on urban schools, but we also have English language learner, students coming from where there is trauma in the home, and special education students,” said Anderson. “It’s not just all rich white people on ranches and farms and that’s kind of the mindset. The idea behind this, is that they don’t really need it.” Anderson said it would cost the state approximately $2 million to restore the funding for the six high schools. That amount has been referred to as “budget dust. “We’re not asking for more money,” said Anderson. “We’re just asking them not to cut. It’s huge for us and some of the districts, it’s almost 30 percent of their budget.”