50 Years Ago | MacDonald tries to deal with problems at the fair
Navajo Tribal Chairman Peter MacDonald held a press conference this week to announce actions to solve problems surrounding the Fourth of July celebration and this year’ tribal fair.
This would be the first time I wrote about the celebration and fair because I started covering reservation news in late September 1971.
Going to the press conference, I thought it would be a standard here-is-the-schedule speech and Navajo leaders urging members to plan to attend.
There was that but it turned out to be a bigger story than I expected as MacDonald had heard a lot of complaints from his supporters about the way the events were held the year before during MacDonald’s first year in office.
Evidently MacDonald had held a similar press conference the year before, promising to make changes to make the events more enjoyable. And he apparently did not deliver on his promise.
Over the years, I realized that the tribal fair was a big deal. An unenjoyable fair could make tribal members wonder if tribal leaders were competent. If you can’t put on a decent fair, how can we expect you to handle a $24 million tribal budget?
MacDonald didn’t come out and apologize to tribal members about their experiences the year before. He did admit that fair officials had let him down. He said this year he would be more involved in the running of the fair.
Complaints had ranged from how much it cost for a family of four to attend the fair, the complete breakdown of the parade, the general condition of the fairground and the lack of organization in the parking lot.
MacDonald said he heard from Navajo families that it cost them more than $80 to attend the fair. Because of a high unemployment rate of more than 60%, he said some families had to cut back on paying basic expenses so their children could enjoy the fair.
He said with high prices, he could not understand why the fair lost so much money. When I asked how much it had lost, MacDonald said the fair budget was being audited but it appeared to be close to $50,000.
A number of Navajo Tribal Council delegates apparently agreed because it became an annual debate since the fair seldom ended the year in the black.
I didn’t know it at the time but many of the families going to the fair got in free because the fair printed up hundreds – maybe even thousands – of free admission tickets so that Council delegates and others could pass them out to supporters.
This came to light in the 1990s when one of the fair directors complained to the Council’s budget committee and the committee passed a resolution for forbidding the practice.
There were a lot of complaints about the cost of the company that each year provided the rides and carnival games. The contract was given each year to the Frazier Brothers. I tried for several years to find out what kind of deal the fair had with the company but the fair office would never release that information.
A few years later, one of the fair managers told me the negotiations were handled personally by MacDonald on a golf course in Phoenix. One of the owners of the company would later testify in a court disposition that part of the deal included a donation to MacDonald’s re-election campaign.
MacDonald announced that his office had found almost $27,000 somewhere in the budget and planned to use it to deal with the most serious problems at the fairground. Those problems seemed to involve the rodeo stands and the powwow arena.
None of it was used to alleviate the main complaint fairgoers made each year – the parking situation.
Going to the fair and using the fairground’s parking lot, which was graveled and lacked any system for parking, resulted in people parking everywhere, sometimes just behind a car that had arrived earlier.
If that driver had also parked too near the car in front of him, you have the beginnings of a long day at the fair while you wait for one of the other drivers to show up so your car would have space to drive away.
I know from personal experience how people found themselves in that position. You sit in your car for hours waiting for one of the other drivers to show up. Then you have to worry about another bottleneck in your lane. If so, more waiting.
That had to happen only once when deciding to park on the road in front of the fairgrounds. But even there, drivers could be blocked in and finding themselves waiting and waiting for the other driver to show up.
Some drivers stayed in the parking lot, coming up with a strategy that would make it impossible to be blocked in. But parking patterns at the fairgrounds changed as cars left and new cars came in and the hunt for a parking space created a new pattern.
Eventually money was found to pave the parking lot and procedures were put in place to make sure you could leave whenever you wanted.
MacDonald made another change in 1972 that greatly improved the operation of future fairs and it was just so obvious that I wondered why it had not been put in place years ago.
But then I remembered that MacDonald’s predecessor, Raymond Nakai, was more interested in the overall direction of tribal departments and ignored the details.
There was no fair manager in the tribal budget. Instead, the director of the tribe’s Fish and Wildlife Department delegated the responsibility to someone in the department. And the designation usually was made in early June which gave the fair manager only three months to put that year’s fair together.
This proved to be an impossible task and it was made worse when someone with no experience in the job was chosen to be that year’s fair manager.
To correct that problem, MacDonald simply had the department appoint someone to run the fair right after the previous fair and all of the financial matters had been completed.
The manager was still a department employee but fair duties took precedence over any others he had in the department.