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Angry housewives

Middle-aged protesters draw a lot of attention and heat with push to save fairgrounds
by: Jaime Valdez, Linda Mokler and Judi Palumbo used chalk to express their opinions about changes to the fairgrounds.

Chalk it up to free speech. Chalk it up to vandalism. Or, chalk it up to, well, chalk.

The pastel-colored graffiti on the wall, written in sidewalk chalk and accompanied by peach stick-figure horses and cows, asked people to 'save the fairgrounds' and 'fire the fair board.'

Linda Mokler called it political speech. Don Hillman, executive director of the Washington County Fair Complex and an employee of the Fair Board, said he was alarmed and filed a police report.

And, last week, Washington County's Board of Commissioners said it was one of several recent incidents of threatening comments and vandalism that caused them to abruptly scuttle a long-awaited public hearing meant to move a development project forward on the fairgrounds' 101 acres of publicly owned land.

'Instead of moving toward a plan that unites and serves the community and provides a benefit for all taxpayers in the county, the community discussions have deteriorated to a non-productive status,' said Tom Brian, chairman of the board of county commissioners, in a letter sent Aug. 7 to the chair of the Hillsboro Planning Commission.

Rich Vial, chairman of the Fair Board, a governing body for the Fair Complex which manages both the annual County Fair and Rodeo as well as the year-round rental of the fair complex's facilities, said he supported the commissioners' decision.

However, those fighting the Fair Board's work on a private/public partnership with developer Opus Northwest said they feel they are being denied a public process - on slim grounds.

Lyle Spiesschaert, spokesman for the 200-member county Fair Boosters who volunteer time and money to help the annual county fair, said he didn't understand the commissioners' decision.

'We were looking forward to our first opportunity in months to have a hearing,' said Spiesschaert, who estimated that more than 400 people showed up for a pre-hearing cookout his group sponsored Thursday in Hillsboro. 'I think it would have been healthy.'

Mokler, a founder of a group called the Middle-Aged Housewives for Livability and Open Government, said she was astounded by the commissioners' call.

'People have the right to disagree with them,' Mokler said.

Graffiti triggers report

It is Mokler and her friend Judi Palumbo who are responsible for the graffiti on the wall. She and Palumbo wrote the anti-Fair Board messages July 25, the day before the county fair started, on a short concrete wall near the corner of Northeast Cornell Road and Northeast 25th Avenue in Hillsboro.

The women apologized for the concerns their actions caused in a letter to the Fair Board and commissioners.

Hillman reported the graffiti to the Hillsboro Police Department Aug. 1, saying the Fair Board took offense to the messages. He asked the department to contact Mokler and Palumbo and let them know 'this wouldn't be tolerated.' Hillman also sent an e-mail to the county commissioners and board members calling the incident 'alarming.'

Hillman said he was most concerned with the 'fire the fair board' comment.

'I don't think graffiti or tagging a wall is appropriate (for that kind of comment),' he said.

Neither Palumbo nor Mokler were arrested or cited for the incident.

In addition to the graffiti, the county commissioners said their decision to cancel last week's meeting was also influenced by reports that two Fair Board members' vehicles were damaged the first day of the county fair.

Vial, Fair Board chairman, found a headlight smashed on his 2001 Saab sedan and the front spoiler broken off. Fair Board member Kathy Christy's 2000 Ford van was keyed. Both Vial and Christy parked in a sectioned off area for staff members and both had blue parking passes prominently displayed on their dash boards identifying their cars.

Commissioners also cited an incident at a Fair Board meeting July 5 with Washington County Fair booster Jim Clymore - who, upset at Vice Chairman Herb Hirst's refusal to respond to questions about whether or not shavings for the stalls at the county fair were donated, stood up and called Hirst an 'ass.' Clymore then called the other Fair Board members puppets and the board's chairman a puppeteer.

Not long after Clymore was on his tractor, tilling the ground on his Hillsboro farm, when Washington County Sheriff Rob Gordon and a detective served him with an exclusion order that bans him from attending county Fair Board meetings until January.

Hillman, who made the decision to get the exclusion order, said his staff felt threatened by Clymore's comments and his finger pointing. Hillman said he didn't want them to work in a hostile environment.

Washington County Commissioner Andy Duyck - as well as the other three county commissioners - supported Brian's position to cancel last week's public hearing based on the growing divisiveness and rancor he said was in the community.

Duyck said he was battle-fatigued.

'The whole thing was turning into a circus,' he said.

Raising objections

The question at the center of the controversy is fairly straightforward: What should be done with the 101 acres of publicly owned land in Hillsboro that houses the county's fairgrounds.

The Housewives, along with the Fair Boosters, object to a proposal presented more than a year ago that would have the county enter into a private/public partnership with developer Opus Northwest in order to build a publicly owned, modern events center and outdoor pavilion.

The new structures, according to the proposal, could be used for the annual county fair as well as for year-round rentals to businesses and organizations for conferences and trade-shows. Opus Northwest suggested it would build the public facilities in exchange for two-thirds of the valuable fairgrounds land.

In the year following the presentation, the Boosters and the Housewives have packed public meetings of the fair board, city councils and county commissioners, speaking more and more with bitterness toward the plan and the public officials. They heckle, demand immediate responses, and clap when fellow fair supporters make accusations.

At the heart of it, they say they are worried that such drastic change to the fairgrounds would mean the loss of the traditional county fair that they know and love.

They are also frustrated because financial details and specifics of the proposed buildings can not legally be released until the Fair Board's negotiations with Opus are complete and a draft design and contract is ready to present to the county commissioners. For now, that process is stalled until Opus is confident that the land's zoning will be amended to allow for expanded commercial uses.

Cooling off

Last week's canceled public hearing was for Hillsboro to consider those zone changes. It was scheduled after the Fair Board members made a plea to the county commissioners for help. The project has already been delayed more than a year because of citizen opposition, and the developer will have the option to jump ship in October.

In response to a question about how the decision to cancel the rezoning hearing affects the relationship with Opus, Brian said he didn't know.

'I'm more concerned about the community,' Brian said.

Brian said he wished to have a cooling-off period, and another chance to work outside the public eye to resolve the issues among the public officials and upset citizens.

'Together, the citizens, businesses and governments of Washington County enjoy an enviable reputation of getting results through collaboration, constructive dialogue and strategic planning,' Brian wrote in his Aug. 7 letter. 'Our communities have been successful in so many efforts, and we believe we can be successful in creating a very positive future for this property as well.'