DEL MAR — A new appointee to the 22nd District Agricultural Association board of directors who has been on a mission for complete transparency is being questioned about his relationship with an attorney whose law firm is representing an agency that is suing the district.
Tom Chino, one of five directors — and the only one who isn’t attorney — appointed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown, presented a policy at the Jan. 10 meeting that would require all committee and subcommittee meetings, as well as those with state and federal representatives, to be open to the public unless precluded by law.
In previous meetings Chino suggested holding brief workshops during regular monthly meetings to inform new appointees and the public about the 22nd DAA, which operates the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
The board has already held sessions to discuss finances and a master plan and environmental impact report for an expansion project at the 350-acre site that was approved by a slightly different set of board members last year.
The district invited a representative from the California Division of Fairs and Expositions to provide information to board members about its role with the district.
In response, Rebecca Desmond offered to conduct a one-on-one orientation with the new members.
Since two directors — Lisa Barkett and Fred Schenk — are previous board appointees, the orientation would have been for the three others. David Watson and David Lizerbram provided times they could meet with Desmond.
In a series of emails between board President Adam Day, a 22nd DAA executive assistant and counsel to the fairgrounds, Chino declined the invitation, insisting all meetings should be held in an open public session “so we can all ask questions and benefit from hearing the questions of others and the answers.”
But one of Chino’s emails sent to the executive assistant, Donna O’Leary, reads, “Dwight, Her coming down, irritates me and makes me think about your more aggressive approach.”
When asked by his colleagues to identify Dwight, Chino said it is Dwight Worden, whom he described as his personal attorney and an adviser.
Worden is a former Del Mar city attorney who recently worked on an ad hoc city committee tasked with forming a response to the 22nd DAA’s EIR and master plan, which calls for new exhibit halls, parking structures and rooftop athletic fields.
He is also a founding partner of Worden Williams, which is representing the San Dieguito River Valley Joint Powers Authority in a lawsuit challenging the expansion plans.
“I’m frankly quite angry about it,” said deputy District Attorney Deborah Fletcher, who serves as legal counsel for the fairgrounds.
She said the conflict should have been disclosed and a waiver should have been filed by the law firm, but neither was done.
“That’s a problem,” she said.
Barkett said the application for a board position includes two questions about possible conflicts of interest.
Lizerbram said the situation presented “a little bit of a Catch-22.”
Schenk told Chino his behavior goes against “the same exact principle you are trying to advocate for in your proposal.”
“Can you see the concern?” Schenk asked Chino. “I’m going to be worried, sir, about things that we discuss during our executive discussions.”
Chino said he only seeks advice from Worden and never discusses with him litigation or employees — matters which are required by law to be held in closed session.
Although Worden, who didn’t speak during the meeting, is retired from his firm, its website currently lists him as one of its attorneys.
“They’re wrong about what they were saying in there,” Worden said as he left the meeting.
“Dwight’s ‘more aggressive approach’ was that if I was not happy with the proposal for a series of one on one private meetings outside the public eye, that I could consider bringing a proposal to the Board to set a policy that such meetings should be done in open session and open to the public,” Chino explained in an email.
When Chino introduced his open-meeting policy for adoption, it died after none of his colleagues would second the motion.
“I thought my proposal was reasonable and in keeping with promoting open government,” Chino wrote. “I was surprised that rather than deal seriously with the substantive issue of open meetings or with the even more important issue of how to address follow up to the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) letter, some on the board instead ‘attacked the messenger’ by diverting the discussion into a meritless issue about conflict of interest.”
The CDFA, which the Division of Fairs and Expositions falls under, recently criticized several 22nd DAA actions, including allowing employees to cash out accrued leave hours such as vacation time.
Day said the issue of Chino’s possible conflict of interest was discussed after the meeting in closed session but there no action was taken.