A new beginning for the fair
Missing records. Outdated employee manuals. Few active committees. No job descriptions. A governing board that didn't look at the checkbook of an organization with a $3 million budget.
Missing records. Outdated employee manuals. Few active committees. No job descriptions. A governing board that didn't look at the checkbook of an organization with a $3 million budget. Lax policies for dealing with cash.
In many ways, a governing board that didn't govern.
That was the Red River Valley Fair last year.What's changed?
These days, the fair's four-member executive committee meets regularly with new fair manager John Pitz, who started in early April.
At least two committee members sign each check - a new policy instituted last October - and question Pitz on bills as he provides updates.
Board members signing checks is one of several changes the Red River Valley Fair's nine-member governing board made during the shakeup that started after last year's money-losing fair, resulting in lawsuits, criminal investigations, the revelation of lax financial controls and a new fair manager.
Fair officials have pledged not to pay entertainers in cash, as was done in the past. Rules prevent new fair manager Pitz from counting cash together with his wife, Nancy Pitz, a newly minted fair employee herself.
John Pitz said the fair has begun a numbered ticket system to make sure the number of tickets sold balances with the money paid.
Beer and food sales are checked against cash register receipts. Bills aren't paid unless there's a statement, Pitz said.
When employees need cash for a start fund, the check is written to that employee and "change" fund is also noted on the check, Pitz said.
The fair keeps a log of tickets given to people free of charge.
"It's just kind of standard cover-your-butt procedure," Pitz said.
Race car drivers at the speedway are paid differently, too.
Previously, the fair wrote checks to "bearer" before each auto race and handed them to the winners that night. That meant anyone who picked up the check could cash it.
Now, checks are written after the races. They're made out to drivers, who can either pick them up or have them mailed.
For the first time in recent memory, an active race committee made plans for the summer racing season at the Red River Valley Speedway. The committee made the fair's first board-approved set of rules for the speedway.
A search committee spent hours sifting through applications and interviewing candidates before the fair board settled on Pitz, a former Idaho and Wyoming fair manager.
Some things are changing more slowly.
Since Pitz started in early April, he has asked board members for direction on things that might normally be part of an employee handbook or policy manual.
The fair's personnel policy dates back to 1989. Consultant Roger Krueger, hired last fall to conduct a performance review of both the fair board and manager Bruce Olson, recommended in November the personnel policy be repealed immediately and replaced with a new document.
In the beginning of May, board members received a draft of a new policy, but they haven't made changes or approved it.
Pitz doesn't expect them to for months, considering the fairgrounds has started its busy season of speedway races, the fair and Big Iron, a large fall farm show.
In the meantime, he's asked board members for consensus to make sure his "butt is covered with paperwork," as he put it.
At one recent meeting, for example, Pitz asked board members whether they wanted him to pay bills as they arrive or when they're due.
"I need something for a guideline for me to follow," he said.
Pitz also asked the governing board to set a spending policy for necessities such as office supplies.
Board members decided to require approval for all capital purchases. Other expenses must be within the board-approved budget.
Krueger's recommendation for a new employee policy manual was one of several recommendations that came after the board started taking control of the fair.
Attendance at the 2005 June fair dipped to 98,700, the smallest number in at least 10 years. It lost an estimated $155,000 and contributed to an overall loss for the fair association.
Afterward, the fair's executive committee conducted a survey of fair association members. Several wrote revealing comments about the fair association's relationship with the previous manager.
"Who runs the fair?" one respondent wrote. "The manager? The board? Or both? We have gotten extremely lazy!"
Another wrote: "I think the board needs to take back the control. The manager has overstepped his authority. Needs to ask questions, not bulldoze."
Board members voted not to renew Olson's contract in December, three weeks after Krueger's report detailed financial accountability problems and a lack of trust toward Olson, who had been fair manager for 15 years.
With no manager, the board didn't have a choice about being involved.
Fair board president Kyle Anderson reported at nearly every board meeting about promoters, booking agents and others who had contacted him to line up the basics for this year's fair.
Olson sued, claiming he had a seven-year contract, and the board countersued, claiming Olson was responsible for $292,000 the board says is missing from the fair.
In January, Krueger came back to the fair board with two proposals. The fair board took him up on one proposal: to assist with the search for a new manager.
The second proposal was to help the fair follow through on his remaining recommendations once the fair manager had been hired.
In November, Krueger recommended the fair:
- Undergo training for the nine-member board of directors and its 50-member advisory board.
- Conduct an audit of the fair's financial status and practice.
- Create job descriptions and standards for employees and conduct performance reviews.
- Immediately replace the existing personnel policy manual.
- Execute a salary study to determine appropriate compensation packages.
- Address deteriorating relationship with the fair manager and decide on continued employment.
- Establish a mission statement.
- Determine expectations and results expected of staff.
- Commit to an internal code of conduct to rebuild trust.
As of January, the fair board had finished two of them: conducting a full audit and addressing its relationship with the manager.
Of the remainder, the fair publicly addressed its manager salary and made a job description before hiring Pitz. Anderson declined to speak to The Forum regarding any other changes made.
The fair still hasn't approved job descriptions for all positions and hasn't publicly addressed a mission statement, standards for all employees or approved the personnel policy it's currently reviewing.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Andrea Domaskin at (701) 241-5556