Conflicts of interest alleged for Kirk Uhler on fairgrounds votes

Uhler voted to give county money to two fair groups in March, though wife’s nonprofit runs fair’s beauty pageant
By: Graham Womack, Staff Writer
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Defend Granite Bay President Larissa Berry is preparing a Fair Political Practices Commission complaint against Placer County Supervisor Kirk Uhler and the county’s elections chief, Ryan Ronco.

Berry believes Uhler’s connection to a business associated with the fairgrounds presented a conflict of interest when he voted to give $600 to the Placer County Fair Association on March 7; to award $2 million to Placer Valley Tourism to operate the fair through 2051; and to approve a budget revision of another $2 million for fairground repairs.

This is the latest of many complaints among Granite Bay residents in recent years that Uhler has voted on projects or budget items that benefit people he does business with, politically or privately.

Uhler, a Placer County supervisor for 15 years and the owner of a communications firm called the Rensa Group, has repeatedly rebuffed these criticisms as being a smear tactic by political opponents.

Uhler’s wife Tamara Uhler operates Up Pageantry, Inc., a nonprofit that has run the annual Miss Placer County Pageant at the fair since 2015. On tax returns, the Uhlers both list their business offices as occupying suite 150A at 1700 Eureka Road in Roseville. Kirk said this is misleading, as the office belongs to the Rensa Group, and his wife’s nonprofit only receives mail there.

Another business registered to suite 150A is Casting Calls America, LLC, which owns, a pageant sponsor. Kirk Uhler’s 2016 asset disclosure forms filed with the FPPC list him as a minority owner of Casting Calls America, LLC.

Section 87100 of the California Political Reform Act requires that “no public official at any level of state or local government shall make, participate in making or in any way attempt to use his official position to influence a governmental decision in which he knows or has reason to know he has a financial interest.”

Speaking on her own behalf and not for Defend Granite Bay, Berry — who has criticized Uhler over a series of Granite Bay development projects and who ran his opponent Victor Bekhet’s campaign in 2016 — said via email last week that the fairground renovations “would benefit (Uhler’s) wife’s pageantry efforts. His personal association should have been disclosed.”

Renovation work at the aging fairgrounds, which began July 12, could culminate with the construction of a $36-million center to host high school sports tournaments and other events.

Ronco will be in Berry’s complaint because Up Pageantry’s 2015 tax return lists Ronco as a company director, working five hours per week on average, without pay. Ronco was also a board member of the Placer County Fair Association when it voted in March 2015 to shift pageant contractors from Kennedy Pageant Productions to Up Pageantry.

“It should be investigated as to whether he had any influence in securing the bid for Up Pageantry,” Berry said.

Kennedy Pageant Productions had organized the Miss Placer County pageants for 17 years, according to the company’s assistant director, and Tamara Uhler was a volunteer director before she was let go in 2013. Tamara filed paperwork to establish Up Pageantry, Inc. in February 2015, and within a month, the Placer County Fair Association voted to switch contractors from Kennedy to Up.

Ronco, who serves with Uhler as co-master of ceremonies for the pageant and has emceed for other pageant providers in the past, said he recused himself from the fair association’s vote.

“I didn’t think it would be appropriate for me to be involved in the vote, so I wasn’t involved in the vote,” Ronco said.

In a phone interview Friday morning, Kirk Uhler scoffed at Berry’s complaint. He said he didn’t recuse himself from the March votes because he had no personal financial interest in the fairgrounds. He said he believed in the pageant, donating his time and money to it, and that has sponsored the event for three years and gives contestants a free one-year account on the website.

“How am I benefiting financially through my scholarship?” Uhler said, referring to the pageant.

Told that other people could see Sac Casting’s name in the pageant program and choose to do business with his company, Uhler responded, “So any business that I’m an owner of should not participate as a sponsor for a nonprofit scholarship organization?”

Besides the appearance of shared offices at 1700 Eureka Road, Uhler said other pieces of information on the tax documents were accidental or misleading. For example, Up Pageantry’s 2015 tax return listed his wife working 80 hours per week for the nonprofit while she also worked full-time as Placer County’s assistant director of child support services. Uhler said this was a typo that should have read 80 hours per month.

“That is being amended,” Uhler said.

He questioned Berry’s motivations in approaching the Press Tribune and the FPPC.

“She knows full well that the FPPC is not going to do anything with this,” Uhler said. “Her interest was in getting a story run, which you guys accommodated before the FPPC did anything with this.”

FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga said, in general, conflict of interest cases can be difficult to prove, with evidence needed to show clear financial gain for elected officials supporting a cause.

“You have to peel the onion back, almost to where the issue started,” Wierenga said.

UPDATE: Our story about the FPPC's ruling on the complaint is available here.