Fair Board Backs Off, Admits Bad Move

THE DISABLED By Jonathan Sher The London Free Press
Last Updated: August 5, 2010 7:42am

Against a rising tide of public outrage, Western Fair has pulled the plug on plans to charge the disabled and their attendants admission to next month's fair.

"As CEO of the Western Fair I want to say we misjudged the impact this would have on the special needs community," fair boss Hugh Mitchell said after an emergency meeting Wednesday of the organization's executive committee.

Since the issue erupted in a Free Press story Saturday, Mitchell said he was inundated by concerned people.

He said he also realized how burdensome the $5 charges would be for disabled people and how unfair they'd be to the attendants they need.

"We got a lot of feedback," said Mitchell, who suggested last week those unhappy with the charges should phone him directly.

The fair will still boost the general admission price at the gate to $12 and charge for children between 5 and 10 for the first time since 1998.

The reversal on charges for the disabled pleased a leading advocate for their cause, Roger Khouri, who chairs the city's accessibility committee and who is legally blind.

The fair should be applauded for listening to its customers and trying to be fair, he said.

"I encourage people not to look at this as a blemish on the fair. The fair should be commended," he said.

Khouri said Londoners should also be thanked for speaking out.

"It really shows the great compassion Londoners have. That's very heartening," he said.

But while there were smiles about the reversal, there appears to be a split over how the fair's board of governors decided to charge the disabled in the first place.

Coun. Cheryl Miller, a member of the board, had said Tuesday she didn't know of the controversial admission charges because the board was given a broad budget document but not line-by-line spending items.

But that account wasn't shared by another governor or the fair boss, both of whom say governors were told of the new admission charges before passing the Western Fair Association's budget.

"We had a discussion about it," said Ray Chowen, who sits on the board with Miller. "I knew about it."

His comments matched the recollection of Mitchell, who said fair administration made detailed presentations on aspects of the budget.

"I'm encouraged someone remembers the same part of the meeting that I do," he said.

Earlier Wednesday, before the different accounts surfaced, Miller was pushing the fair to reconsider the admission hikes.

"I certainly want to keep the fair in the fabric of everybody's life," she said.

After the differing accounts surfaced, Miller didn't reply to a Free Press message left Wednesday afternoon.

More chatty was Coun. Bernie MacDonald, who serves as a fair director.

"I'm very pleased," he said.

Western Fair has been a model organization and it's good to see its leaders take that responsibility seriously, he said.

Mitchell plans to track for the first time how many disabled people and their attendants go to the fair - its executives didn't know how much free admission had cost the fair when they originally supported charging the disabled.

Mitchell said he hopes Western Fair might become a leader in setting standards on pricing for disabled people - his cursory review of other entertainment venues found a grab bag of different practices.

Fair directors have tried to keep operations of the 10-day event in the black and boosted admission prices this year to do that.

The provincially-operated slot machines at Western Fair generate millions of dollars for the fairground operations. Western Fair gets 10% of the casino's revenue, double city hall's share, worth about $60 million during the casino's first decade.

E-mail jonathan.sher@sunmedia.ca, or follow jsherLFPRESS on Twitter.

Reproduced from http://www.lfpress.com/news/london/2010/08/04/14925766.html

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