Ellis

Posted: Friday, September 23, 2011 2:14 pm | Updated: 10:00 pm, Fri Sep 23, 2011.

NORBERTO SANTANA JR.

Friday, Sept. 23, 2011 | Orange County Marketplace swap meet owner Jeff Teller, a driving force behind the two-year fight to stop the sale of the local fairgrounds, has been kicked off the property.

The Orange County Fair Board in a 6-3 vote terminated their lease with Teller’s Tel Phil Enterprises, which has operated the swap meet at the fairgrounds in Costa Mesa for 42 years. It was the latest blow delivered in a feud that continues to escalate.

The increasingly hostile nature of the relationship between the board and its tenant was on full display Thursday. At one point, Teller called the Fair Board’s action a “terrorist threat.” Later in the meeting, board member Dale Dykema said the Tellers are “not easy to deal with.”

The reason given by board members for terminating the lease was Tel Phil’s business model, which members said is no longer viable. They pointed to slumping sales in recent years as proof.

Fair Board Chairman David Ellis and others complained that the rent paid by the Tellers (25 percent of gross sales) had been reduced in recent years, indicating potential problems.

Yet as they were attacking Tel Phil’s business model, board members were also authorizing requests for proposals for another swap meet operator at the site. A representative from Delaware North, which runs swap meets, attended the meeting.

Other fairgrounds activists said the real reason for the attempted ouster of Tel Phil is political retribution.

Teller became one of the key leaders of the Orange County Fairgrounds Preservation Society, which formed in 2009 after former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger put the fairgrounds up for sale and the Fair Board began a series of ill-fated, and in some ways illegal, attempts to sell the 150-acre property.

Teller was instrumental in gathering more than 50,000 signatures against the sale and was the lead plaintiff in a series of high profile lawsuits that eventually halted the sale of the property and kept it in public hands.

“It’s ludicrous that Fair Board members who schemed to buy the fairgrounds for themselves by forming a private foundation in 2009 have decided to retaliate against the OC Marketplace, one of the key entities that helped to stop the sale of the fairgrounds,” said activist Theresa Sears.

“It looks like retribution for exposing their dirty deeds.”

Teller’s attorney, Ruben Smith, pleaded with the board to avoid the grinding legal battle sure to follow the lease termination.

“Why would you punish a tenant that filed the lawsuit that successfully thwarted the sale of the fairgrounds?” Smith asked in open session. “If it wasn’t for the that lawsuit. none of us would be here. Put the politics aside and do the right thing.”

Fair Board attorneys, meanwhile, gave a detailed presentation showing that there have been numerous disputes with Tel Phil about coordinating swap meets with other events as well as issues like charges for sweeping.

“We’ve got a tenant out there that thinks they own this 150-acre property … and that is wrong,” said Ellis. “That relationship is beyond broken.”

Board Vice Chairwoman Joyce Tucker said the relationship was so strained that something like a marriage counselor was needed.

Just how bad the relationship has become was apparent during an exchange between Teller and Dykema. During the discussion between board members and Teller’s attorneys, board member Kristina Dodge asked that Teller himself speak.

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