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| THE PARTISAN
By Royal Calkins
When the Monterey County Board of Supervisors met Tuesday to consider a new management contract for the county-owned Laguna Seca Raceway, it was clear they had backed themselves into a corner.
County officials had been saying for years that they were dissatisfied with the management work of the Sports Car Racing Association of Monterey (SCRAMP), the largely volunteer organization that had operated the world-class track since 1957.
In fact, just five years ago, the county had negotiated with another firm interested in running things but couldn’t reach agreement. Then, in 2017, county officials announced the contract was going to go to another entity, but after weeks and weeks of discussions, a final agreement couldn’t be reached.
So, SCRAMP hung on, accumulating debt and apparently missing out on opportunities to expand the race schedule. Conditions at the track had deteriorated to the point that an assistant county administrator with strong financial skills was assigned to monitor track activities and work with the county’s own Public Works Department to make overdue improvements.
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Still, despite growing evidence that a change was needed and with SCRAMP’s latest contract set to expire at the end of this year, county officials kept flipping pages on their calendars without doing anything to cement the track’s future. Until, finally, they announced in October that the management contract was up for grabs. If they didn’t know that it would be exceptionally difficult to find a qualified operator and negotiate a contract before New Year’s Day, they certainly should have.
The announcement inviting new management proposals came on October 15, catching SCRAMP somewhat off guard and surprising other potential operators. But it was no surprise to the entity that prevailed this week when the supervisors were finally ready to move ahead. The venture that would win the contract when the supervisors finally moved ahead Tuesday, A&D Narigi Consulting, had been created just a week earlier when the principal, longtime hotel manager John Narigi, filed its partnership papers with the California Secretary of State.
Though numerous U.S. companies are equipped to run major tracks, only one other was able to get a proposal in on time for consideration Tuesday. Chris Pook, the highly regarded founder of the Grand Prix of Long Beach, was provided about 10 minutes to make his pitch to the supervisors Tuesday.
The Salinas meeting room was filled with people Tuesday, mostly long-time SCRAMP associates and volunteers there to plead their case. But almost everyone in the room knew that the decision had been made well before board Chairman John Phillips banged his gavel to open the public hearing.
How much time Narigi had spent discussing his plan with the supervisors wasn’t mentioned Tuesday. Also left unmentioned was whether Narigi had gone to the supervisors or vice versa.
The supervisors brushed aside Pook’s application without discussion and brushed aside a state Fair Political Practices Commission investigation into allegations that Phillips and another supervisor, Chris Lopez, appear to have benefited from campaign contributions that made their way to them from a network of political action committees, three of which have shared Narigi as an officer. Until the spring, Narigi was general manager of the Monterey Plaza Hotel and was heavily involved in hospitality industry politics.
Phillips, Lopez and others in the room had learned of the investigation early this year when the FPPC requested various documents from them.
Phillips, Lopez and others in the room had learned of the investigation early this year when the FPPC requested various documents from them. Others only found out about the investigation Monday when Voices of Monterey Bay reported on it.
The investigation, which continues, began after political consultant Christian Schneider, who was involved in the last two campaigns for Monterey County sheriff, complained to the state agency that it appeared that three Peninsula business PACS and the Salinas Valley Leadership Group had illegally coordinated their activities for the benefit of Phillips and others and may have engaged in obscuring the true source of certain campaign contributions.
The only mention of the investigation Tuesday came from Supervisor Luis Alejo, who received a $9,000 contribution from one of the PACs but isn’t a subject of the investigation.
He said, incorrectly, that the complaint had been filed with the FPPD “recently” and that it was part of a political smear. He seemed to be suggesting it was filed in order to hurt Narigi’s chances of winning the Laguna Seca contract. In fact, Schneider’s complaint was filed sometime before April 29, which is when the state agency let him know an investigation would be conducted. The FPPC receives countless complaints about alleged wrongdoing in campaigns but convenes formal investigations into only a small percentage.
The assistant administrative officer, DeWayne Woods, told the board that the delay in soliciting proposals came about largely because he wanted to wait until after the events of Car Week in August. Phillips adopted an apologetic tone when he said he had taken part in that decision.
Narigi, Phillips and Lopez have declined to comment on the FPPC matter. Don Chapin, the Salinas-based contractor who founded the Salinas Valley Leadership Group, discussed it briefly with Voices on Tuesday after addressing the supervisors on Narigi’s behalf.
Chapin said he welcomed the investigation and hopes it is thorough. He denied any knowledge of campaign money laundering or improper coordination between political action committees. He confirmed that the FPPC had requested documents from him and the others months ago and said he understands the FPPC would soon be scheduling a conference call with him and other subjects of the investigation.
Chapin also clarified some information about his connections to Phillips. Voices reported Monday that they are partners in the Crazy Horse golf course outside Salinas. Chapin said Phillips, or perhaps his wife, holds just one share of the company that owns the course.
In addition to Chapin, several other stalwarts of the business community praised Narigi on Tuesday, describing him an exceptionally hard-working hotel manager well equipped for the task ahead of him. While Pook and several SCRAMP supporters argued that Narigi has no experience in racing, his supporters said he knows that he will need to hire people with racing expertise.
Those speaking on Narigi’s behalf made it clear that the Peninsula hotel industry has a keen interest in the track and its ability to attract crowds more often.
Narigi, who serves on the board of directors of Phillips’s Rancho Cielo job training academy for at-risk youth, has told county officials and others that he will limit his involvement in politics once his contract is signed.
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