In 2015, the Wisconsin State Fair marked the third straight year its attendance exceeded the one million mark, reaching 1,030,881. The continued success of this high profile Midwestern fair has been largely credited to Rick Frenette, an industry veteran who had been Executive Director of the Wisconsin State Fair since 2010.
On May 12th, the Wisconsin State Fair Board terminated Frenette, three months before opening day of the 2016 Wisconsin State Fair. The announcement was the result of a four hour closed session meeting, where the voted unanimously to immediately terminate the employment of Frenette. The board named an interim replacement, Kathleen O'Leary, who was the chief operating officer. Human Resources Director, Ryan Burns, who was complicit in the sequence of misdeeds or mistakes - depending on who is telling the story - that revolved around unapproved wage increases that led to Frenette's dismal - resigned the following day.
John Yingling, Chairman of the Wisconsin Board, said, that although state and fair attorneys were present when Frenette and his legal representative met with the board, "this was not a legal proceeding or hearing. But (the presence of council) speaks to the severity of the situation. His (Frenette) position is one of public trust, and he violated that trust."
The reason for the dismissal was unauthorized merit increases to staff members that included Frenette. The board alleged Frenette ignored the approval process for Defined Merit Compensation (DMC), which are how raises are classified under Wisconsin state government statutes. Frenette was accused of giving himself a raise and giving himself and staff members hourly increases in salary, instead of a lump sum payout - i.e., a bonus - which is how DMCs are to be calculated and awarded according to Wisconsin statutes. While Frenette admits he misconstrued the procedures he was not aware he was included on the list of people submitted for merit increases.
"Simply put, as Executive Director, you cannot give yourself a raise," said Yingling. "That was the major problem. You cannot break policy."
Under Frenette, the DMC given to other fair employees - which Yingling described as a mix of executive level and other staff - were not in a bonus format, but an hourly increase. "Increasing the hourly amount was building base salaries, which is not allowable under state guidelines," he said.
The way it is supposed to work - and a format Frenette followed in previous cycles - is that Frenette approves the DMC for other employees, and Yingling approves the raise for Frenette - approval occurs in October, with the increase going into effect the following year. Yingling said that in the February, the department of Administration contacted him about hourly increases for fair staff including Frenette, a total of about $78,000.
"I do not why know why Rick decided not to follow the proper procedures like he had in previous years," said Yingling. "You cannot look into another man's mind."
Frenette - who said he was not aware that proper procedures were not being followed by the Human Resources Director - said that hourly increases were not allowed for fiscal year '16, a change from the procedure of previous years. "The merit raises I recommended for my staff to HR were meant to reward them for their efforts in turning a money-losing state agency into a multi-million dollar profit center for the state". Fair revenue increased from 17 million to 24 million dollars over the last five years of Frenette's leadership, going from a 15 million deficit to an average annual surplus of 1.5 million per year. "I did not recommend an increase for myself, only my staff, my misstep was failure to review the paperwork submitted by the fair's HR Director which included my name and as head of the Agency I have to take responsibility for that oversight".
Besides firing Frenette, the Board also rescinded all hourly raises to the approximately 30 Wisconsin State Fair employees, which mean that the hourly increases - in effect since January - were removed. Yingling said that the increases were "transitioned" into the bonus type DMC's they were supposed to receive.
Frenette told Carnival Warehouse, because the system uses direct deposit, he did not notice the increase in his paycheck until April 1st, at which time he contacted Burns, the Human Resources Director. "He told me that is how he was doing the merit increases this year and that he put his raise in along with everyone else's. He told me the system allowed him to put it through like that ," he said. "I assumed that was the end of it, because he handled the input of the raises."
Frenette said that when he realized he had received a raise, "it was as much of a surprise to me as it was to anybody. In retrospect, I should have had more oversight of the process."
Frenette spoke with Carnival Warehouse a little more than a week after his dismissal, and he admitted he was "still reeling" from the ordeal. "It is a situation you cannot be prepared for."
He has retained an attorney and said he was unable to comment regarding future legal action. "There were some character assassination things that were said, but I cannot comment on what action I will take," he said.
He added that he is confident this setback will not permanently blemish his career, which includes 11 years as General Manager at the Ohio State Fair, and six years as Executive Director of the Utah State Fair. "This industry is built on personal relationships, and I have built those relationships over the course of my career," he said. "I love the fair industry and have spent my life in the fair industry. I hope to put this behind me."
Adam Heffron, currently Chief Operating Officer of the Washington State Fair, served as Director of Event Services at Wisconsin State Fair Park under Frenette for four years. "He is one of the most professional people in the fair industry," he said. "He turned that fair around, made it one of the best fairs in the country. He created Spin City, the independent midway. He was a true leader and encouraged everyone under him to thrive and achieve more."
Heffron left his position in February of this year, and said while he did fill out some evaluations for employees, he was never part of the process that awarded DMCs. Although effusive in his praise of his former boss, he said he had only become aware of the situation by reading Wisconsin news reports online. "I suspect there is something political going on here. It is an election year in Wisconsin, there is a Republican Governor, and cutting the budget is a big thing. Firing Rick could be a way to score political points."
Although the current governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, is not up for reelection, according to Yingling, the entire House of Assembly and half the State Senate are. Several members of the Wisconsin State Fair board are elected officials, including State Senator Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa), who made the motion to fire Frenette. Senator Vukmir declined comment to Carnival Warehouse.
The search for Frenette's replacement will not begin until after the 2016 fair, said Yingling. It will be an extensive search for this high level position - Frenette's salary was a reported $127,000 a year - and ideally "we will have somebody in place after the first of next year," said Yingling.
He added that the process of awarding DMC's will stay in place, with one minor change. The Human Research Director will inform Yingling, the Chairman of the Board, in writing, of all staff raises and DMC's. Previously, Yingling only directly monitored the Executive Director's DMC.
O'Leary, now Interim Chief Executive Officer of the state fair, was one of the staff members who received unallowable DMC hourly raises that resulted in Frenette's dismissal. She is the first woman to be at the helm of the Wisconsin State Fair, and for the time being will also hold down her duties as COO, a position she was promoted to in March. She has been with the fair since 1998.
Her focus is now more on the fair in August and not the fair leadership scandal of May. "While the situation with Rick certainly presents some challenges, we have an extremely experienced, talented and passionate staff at Wisconsin State Fair Park," O'Leary told Carnival Warehouse. "I want all of our fairgoers, partners and vendors to know that we are all dedicated to putting on a successful 2016 fair, and look forward to celebrating 165 years of tradition during the best 11 days of summer in Wisconsin."