Jones raises concerns about fairgrounds

Robert Smith
The Osage County Fairgrounds in Pawhuska is a popular destination for multiple events, like in this 2016 file photo of Cavalcade. Osage County Commissioner Randall Jones voiced some concerns over the fairgrounds’ operations at a meeting Monday. Nathan Thompson/Journal-Capital

New county commissioner Randall Jones on Monday raised several concerns about operations at the Osage County Fairgrounds, beginning with his desire to put an end to the acceptance of cash payments for goods and services.

Stephen “PeeWee” Easley Jr., Fairgrounds manager, offered the view that ending cash payments could hurt business.

Jones, who represents District 1, said he is interested in helping county employees by getting them out of the potentially compromising position of accepting cash.

“I’m just trying to work out the problem that we should not have any of our employees in that position,” Jones said. “I’m not saying it’s not going to hurt. It might.”

Jones said he thinks if anyone backs out of holding a planned event at the Osage County Fairgrounds because of cash payments being stopped, “that raises more questions than it answers.”

“It’s not just me trying to be difficult,” Jones said. “It’s hard to see but it actually makes (a county employee’s) job easier.”

County Clerk Shelia Bellamy commented that one issue to be addressed when it comes to the use of debit and credit cards is the fees that are charged on transactions. Bellamy said her office takes checks, but not cards.

Court Clerk Jennifer Burd said her office takes cards, and that card fees are figured into court costs.

There were also comments about the best way to accommodate recreational vehicle (RV) users at the Fairgrounds, some of whom may arrive at late hours.

“We need to look at the legalities of it,” Jones said regarding the change he was proposing. “If we could get a handle on it, that would be a great thing.”

Assistant District Attorney Michelle Keely was present for the discussion and kept notes on the proceedings. From the discussion of the cash issue, the commissioners turned to a consideration of potential conflicts of interest at the fairgrounds.

Jones said he has a problem with county employees, on or off the clock, engaging in private business endeavors on county property. He added that he is “not accusing anybody of anything” and that he is “not trying to to be a boy scout on this deal.”

Jones mentioned the sale of hay and concessions as private business activities pursued. What followed was an emotionally sensitive discussion of services that Easley, the Fairgrounds manager, has provided to users of various elements of that facility. Easley, who lives at the fairgrounds as part of his compensation, is paid by the county on a salary basis.

“My issue is that it’s hard to take off one hat and put on another,” Jones said.

Easley offered to let the county take over for him in providing any additional services to fairgrounds users.

“It’d be less headaches on me,” he said. Easley said he sometimes works more than 100 hours a week at the fairgrounds.

“Am I overdoing it or what?” he said.

“I’m sorry that it comes across like I’m picking on you because I’m not,” Jones said, adding he’s trying to protect the county and wants to be able to defend Easley. “I have legal questions that I would like to have answered on that.”

Board Chairman Darren McKinney intervened to give Easley a vote of confidence.

“I think you’re doing a great job, PeeWee,” McKinney said. “I don’t want to haul no hay, either.”

Easley defended the results of his efforts at the fairgrounds.

“This fairgrounds is busier than it’s ever been,” he said.

McKinney said he thinks that reflects well on Easley.

Jerry Butterbaugh, a resident of the west side of the county, said he thinks Easley does a good job, and Butterbaugh offered a potential solution. He suggested the county could formally agree to offer Easley a right of first refusal on providing additional services to users of the fairgrounds. If Easley were to decline to provide a given service, the commissioners could put it out to bid, Butterbaugh said.

“More questions for Legal,” McKinney said.

Macy Strom, president of the Osage County Free Fair Board, commented on the importance of public perception.

Jones argued that the fairgrounds should be understood to be a public service paid for by taxpayers, and not a business from which the county can make money.

Commissioners took no immediate action as a result of the discussions since they had unanswered questions.

In other fairgrounds business, the commissioners voted 3-0 to solicit bids to make improvements to the Women’s Building. Jones raised the issue and McKinney and District 2 Commissioner Kevin Paslay agreed with him. Jones said the building needs a new ceiling.