INDIANAPOLIS - The Call 6 Investigators are digging into allegations of safety problems at the Marion County Fairgrounds.
The ex-director of the fair board, Jack Haefling, told Call 6 Investigator Kara Kenney he was fired from his position this month for blowing the whistle on electrical issues.
It’s the first time a director of the board has been expelled in the fair’s history, officials said.
In response to complaints from Haefling, state and city agencies are taking action, launching inspections and investigations.
The Marion County Fair has been operating for 84 years, typically running at the end of June and bringing in 75,000 visitors annually.
This year’s fair is already over, and it’s quiet at the fairgrounds except for a controversy that’s been brewing for months.
It came to a head on July 16, when the Marion County Fair Board of Directors voted unanimously to remove its director, Jack Haefling.
The Call 6 Investigators showed up to find out why, but the board went into executive session, and RTV6 was asked to leave.
Executive sessions can be used under Indiana law when boards are discussing personnel matters.
Afterward, Kenney caught up with fair board president Ron Phillips.
"It was kind of unfortunate conduct by a director that wouldn't fit into our bylaws and our tradition at the Marion County Fair,” Phillips said. “It would be best left private, I think. I wouldn't want to embarrass anyone."
Haefling said he was not given an official reason for his removal, but said it was likely retaliation for blowing the whistle on safety issues at the fair.
Haefling was elected 2-and-a-half years ago and was responsible for maintenance.
“We are very concerned with the electrical situation,” Haefling said.
Haefling said many of the issues stemmed from a former electrical contractor.
He pointed to problems like exposed wires and boxes missing covers.
“A child could be electrocuted very easily,” Haefling said.
Darrell Morris, Fire and Safety Superintendent at the Marion County Fair and former fire code inspector, said he agrees with Haefling’s concerns.
“There were a lot of open boxes; the blanks were taken out where people could stick their fingers in,” Morris said. “Something’s gotta be done.”
Both Haefling and Morris said they tried to voice their concerns to board members before the fair, but got little response.
“The response I got from several people on the board was, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ll take care of it,’” Morris said.
“I have raised these issues at board meetings in my maintenance reports notes,” Haefling said.
Call 6 Investigator Kara Kenney asked Phillips about whether there’s any truth to allegations of electrical problems.
“I hope not,” Phillips said. “We entrusted a director to look into those matters, and we will look into them further.”
The Call 6 Investigators did some checking and could not find any government agency that regularly inspects the Marion County fairgrounds for electrical issues inside its buildings, such as the administration building, Marion County sheriff’s building, maintenance building and horticulture building.
The State Fire Marshal’s Office told Kenney its agency inspects rides and electrical issues for entertainment stages, but not fixed buildings.
The State Fire Marshal inspected the fairgrounds June 16 for its entertainment permit and found no violations or issues.
The Call 6 Investigators contacted the Indianapolis Fire Department July 10 asking about the inspection process for the Marion County fairgrounds.
“For clarification, because this is a seasonal event IFD does not have any inspection reports for that location,” IFD Battalion Chief and Fire Marshal Courtney Gordon wrote in an email to Kenney. “It is my understanding that the state Fire Marshal (inspects) rides and the health department (inspects) food vendors.”
In response to complaints and inquiries from the Call 6 Investigators, a team from the City of Indianapolis Code Enforcement, Indianapolis Fire Department and the State Fire Marshal gathered on July 29 for a 2-and-a-half-hour inspection.
"As we went through the buildings there were some things we saw, took notes on, and we're going to make suggestions that those things be corrected,” State Fire Marshal’s Office spokesman Ian Connor said. “We want to make sure the recommendations we have improves the safety of all those buildings.”
Gordon told Kenney the violations they found included exposed wires, electrical boxes missing covers, exit signs and emergency lights not working, a hood exhaust that needed cleaning, occupant load signs that needed to be posted, and some fire extinguishers not mounted at the right height.
Gordon said no major violations were found, however major violations typically involve sprinklers or alarm systems.
The fairground buildings are not required to have either because they were built before the law took effect, Gordon said.
Inspectors did not require fair officials to fix any of the violations on the spot.
They are putting together a list of violations and recommendations for the fairgrounds, along with a timeline for fixing those issues.
Gordon said they are researching the code because some of the buildings are actually considered barns or agricultural buildings, and don’t fall under the city’s fire code.
Fair board president Ron Phillips said they’re working with state and local agencies to improve safety.
“A couple of minor housekeeping issues,” Phillips said after the July-29 inspection. “We have a good maintenance man who is on top of stuff and we’re looking good.”
The Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration (IOSHA) received a complaint from Haefling on July 22 alleging 56 health and safety violations at the Marion County fairgrounds.
IOSHA is launching an investigation that could take months.
“If we find clear safety violations, we will issue a safety order,” Indiana Department of Labor spokesman Bob Dittmer said. “Safety orders cite findings that can range from non-serious, to serious, to knowing. If cited, the actions required by the organization cited are to ‘remediate’ the conditions found (fix what we found wrong) and to pay a penalty. “
Darrell Morris also filed a complaint with the Marion County Public Health Department.
In response, the health department inspected and cited the fairgrounds for minor issues such as a camper not having a current license plate and a garage that needs to be secured and boarded up.
Haefling said the government agencies gave fair officials adequate time to clean up many safety issues before performing inspections.
Ron Phillips told RTV6 the State Fire Marshal’s Office asked him around July 11 about availability for a July 29 inspection.
While the fair is almost a year away, the fairgrounds host other events such as the Hoosier Auto Show throughout the year and the facilities are also available for rent.
“They need to get a hold on this,” Haefling said. “The fair is struggling.”
The Marion County fair receives $100,000 a year from the City-County Council.
Haefling said he plans to push the council to require that money be used for capital improvements, maintenance and matching grants.