Del Mar fair board director resigns, attacks ‘status quo leadership’

The Del Mar Fairgrounds
The Del Mar Fairgrounds
(San Diego Union-Tribune)

Chula Vista attorney says it’s ‘time for me to move on’


Chula Vista attorney David Watson has resigned from the board of the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which oversees activities at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, citing a lack of leadership in “treacherous times.”

“The current board majority seems content with the status quo leadership and management team, which I do not believe will be sufficient to meet this moment,” Watson said. “As a result, it is time for me to move on and leave the task to someone else.”

He said he supports the board’s recent decision to cancel the San Diego County Fair this year because of restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“But even before the advent of COVID-19, the organization was facing extreme financial turmoil because of historical reliance on horse racing revenues,” Watson said. “Significant bond financing is based on future revenue from racing as well as the creation of a new concert venue. Those revenues are now at great risk.”

Reached by email Monday, April 20, Watson declined to discuss his resignation further. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office did not respond to requests for comments on the resignation.

Assemblyman Todd Gloria, D-San Diego, whose district includes the fairgrounds, said Watson was “an incredible public servant” and thanked him for his service.

“I have long held concerns about the fairgrounds and its future in a challenging environment,” Gloria said in an email this week. Gloria wrote the state legislation that takes effect next year to ban the sale of firearms and ammunition at the fairgrounds.

“While the 22nd DAA’s focus is on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, I want to return the conversation to ensuring the success of this public asset well into the future,” Gloria said.

Watson was appointed to three four-year terms on the board by Gov. Jerry Brown beginning in 2011 and most recently in 2018. He said in his resignation letter, submitted April 15 and effective immediately, that he was especially proud of the wetlands restoration of part of the fairgrounds parking lot during his service.

“For the first time in decades, the fairgrounds complies with federal and state environmental laws,” he said.

Attendance and revenue have been declining at horse racing events in recent years. Animal welfare advocates often attend fair board meetings and ask the directors to end horse racing at Del Mar.

The fairgrounds is still paying off millions of dollars in bonds issued in the early 1990s to build its racetrack grandstand. It recently borrowed more money for a $13 million renovation to create a large live-music and entertainment venue at the under-used Surfside Race Place off-track wagering center.

Completion of the new venue was expected this year, but the opening date is now uncertain because of the state’s continuing prohibition of large gatherings.

Another headache for the board has been the Crossroads of the West Gun Show, held five weekends a year at the fairgrounds for more than 30 years. Gun-safety advocates stepped up their efforts to end the shows about two years ago after the mass shootings in Parkland, Fla., and elsewhere.

The fair board voted to end the shows last year, but a federal judge ordered them reinstated after the show’s owner filed suit. The new state law superseded the board’s efforts to limit gun sales, but the legal fight is likely to continue.

Thinking of the future, the fair board recently started a series of community meetings to help develop a new strategic plan for the fairgrounds. Like most other public gatherings, the meeting scheduled for April was canceled because of the pandemic precautions.

“In the past, I would have said former leaders of the board were up to the task of navigating these treacherous times,” Watson said in his letter. “I do not believe that is true today.”

All nine directors on the board are appointed by the governor. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last month his appointment of its newest member, G. Joyce Rowland of Rancho Santa Fe, who served as an executive at Sempra Energy from 1998 to 2019.

Newsom also reappointed Richard Valdez, a San Diego attorney and the fair board’s current chairman. Valdez did not respond to requests for comment.

— Phil Diehl is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune