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Volunteer exodus called unfair at fair

Months of bickering and more than a dozen key resignations among Island County Fair volunteers might leave Whidbey Island's big summer party drifting without a rudder this summer.

Since October, political moves on the Island County Fair Board and among fair association members have stripped the fair of about half of the board members who were serving as late as last fall -- including Ralph Nakamura, Ed Siegel, and Ruth Turner.

Also in that time, two fair board presidents have resigned and, perhaps even more damaging to this summer's fair, several volunteers and one office employee have walked away from the fair altogether.

What it all will mean when the fair opens on August 14 for its four-day run in Langley is hard to say. In the opinion of Eva Mae Gabelein, a long-time fair association member and volunteer, the volunteer losses could be crippling. She accuses fair board leadership -- including current board chairwoman Marilyn Gabelein -- of forcing volunteers out.

"It's a power pull," she said, referring to what she sees as a directed effort by some members of the fair board to turn over the membership. "They're not treating volunteers properly."

But on the other side of the argument, Marilyn Gabelein, who took over the board chair position in May, said this week that she believes the fair will come off as always. She contends that the past few months' exodus of volunteers and board members is not unusual, especially considering that many of those who have left volunteered with the fair for a decade or more.

"I think it's a natural turnover kind of a thing," she said.

Which assessment of the situation is correct is a matter of perspective. Yet a number of incidents do show that the administration of the fair and its volunteers has been fracturous since not long after the 2002 fair closed its gates in August.

One of the uglier moments, according to a number of fair volunteers and board members, was the ouster in January of board member Ralph Nakamura. Just prior to a vote at that month's regular meeting, Nakamura was told that he had not paid his $5 in dues for the year and could not vote.

Having just returned to the board after a long illness, Nakamura was shocked by the treatment. A volunteer at the fair for more than a decade, he resigned after the incident.

"I felt it was petty," Nakamura said last week.

Symptoms of a bigger problem

Also splitting the board and its committees were clashes over the bidding and hiring of a publicity coordinator, allegations of nepotism in a dispute over a food vendor's booth, and alleged irregular hiring practices. One food vendor, Donna Wollmuth, has even threatened legal action against the fair for the loss of her pizza booth spot, a spot she alleges was taken by a member of the fair's vendor committee to open her own pizza booth.

All of these are symptoms of a problem former fair board chairman Gary Fisher says comes down to personalities. Fisher, a Coupeville resident who was appointed to the fair board by the Island County Board of Commissioners last year, resigned from the top post last month after determining that he had been "emasculated" by fair politics.

In a notice of resignation sent to the county commissioners May 29, Fisher leveled a number of allegations at fair association and board, including one over the board's failure to pick the lowest bidder for publicity services -- as is required by board policy.

Winning the publicity contract was Sandey Brandon, the fair association treasurer, whose bid of $4,000 was four times that of a bid from Boomerang Business Services in Clinton. The Whidbey Marketplace had the highest bid at $8,000.

"We should have done a better job of reviewing the bids," Fisher said from his home last week. "It was a hasty decision."

Having accepted the chairmanship of the board after the resignation of the previous chairman, current fair manager Jim Eakin, and in the wake of a month-long fight over the position, Fisher said he had hoped to make a difference. But since the chairman may only vote in the case of a tie among other board members, he said he was unable to swing decisions on most issues.

He resigned after just two meetings as chairman.

Still a board member, Fisher is confident that the fair will go on as usual this summer. Still, he harbors a few doubts.

"If a couple more key people resign, it's going to be a disaster," he said, referring in particular to Jim Eakin.

Ruth Turner, a 15-year fair volunteer and former fair board president, seemed to share Fisher's concerns. One of first people to resign from the board this year, she said the political climate at fair board meetings was such that she decided to have no further involvement with the organization.

Speaking in March about her resignation, Turner said politics could spoil what should be a good time.

"I hope we don't lose this atmosphere of the little country fair," she said.

No help from higher authority

Thus far, no controlling authority has stepped in to quell disputes over the fair. Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton said this week it is his preference that the fair board and association work out their difficulties on their own. While he and his two other fellow commissioners do have some authority over the fair in terms of ownership and in appointing three of the nine members of the fair board, he is not interested taking up the management of the fair in addition to the commissioners' other duties.

"Neither me nor the other two commissioners are interested in doing that," he said this week.

Still, he acknowledged that there is a problem at the fair and pledged his personal assistance -- if necessary -- to work through political, personal and business issues. That may be necessary, he said, since he has never seen the political atmosphere turn so treacherous for so long at the fair.

"I don't think the disagreements have ever risen to the level they are currently at," he said.

Events in the past two weeks also seem to have started closing the shutters on fair business. Though generally open to the public, the fair office -- at Marilyn Gabelein's behest -- has closed some of its vendor records to the public. Commissioner Shelton did not dispute that decision, noting that the Island County Fair Association is a private, non-profit corporation.

However, as a publicly-owned entity that receives 15 percent of its $210,000 budget directly from the state, the fair itself must keep some of its records open to the public under the Washington Public Disclosure Act.

Future is still uncertain

At the moment, change is still in the air at the fair. Two board positions remain open and another according to Marilyn Gabelein, could open in October. Recent hirings -- both of which occurred only after heated arguments in fair board meetings this spring -- have also replaced long-time fair employees Carol Buck and Pat Short. Buck resigned her position after last year's fair for health reasons. Short resigned in February.

Whether any of these changes will be to the positive may depend on how the fair politics shake out. Gary Fisher said it will take more than a change of personnel to heal the fair's ills. It will take a change of attitude.

"The longer they do business as usual, it's an endorsement of doing it more," he said.

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