Community groups and businesses that closed their booths early at this year's Hancock County 4-H fair are protesting efforts to bar them from next year's event.
The Hancock County 4-H Agriculture Association has sent letters to 13 groups that had booths in the community tents at the June fair. The letter informs the operators that since their booths were unoccupied or removed prior to tear-down, they won't be allowed to return in 2013.
But many booth operators say they closed early because of an approaching storm.
"This was a public safety issue in my mind," said Tara Armstrong, vice chairman of the Hancock County Republican Party, who closed the GOP's booth about two hours early on June 29.
Armstrong said thunderstorms earlier that night had sent people scrambling for shelter, and she was worried about a second line of storms heading in the fair's direction.
"I was the one who was directly over the volunteers, and I was not going to put anyone's safety at risk, especially just after I had seen what happened the year before at the (Indiana) State Fair," Armstrong said.
According to the Daily Reporter, the agriculture association wants full-time occupation of booths so that visitors get a full fair experience. The contract requires that vendors stay at the fair until 10 p.m. the final day.
The form letter dated Aug. 28 stated that having booths that were not occupied by personnel or that were torn down early is "very unfortunate to our fairgoers and the contractual agreement that we were under. … This will rescind the privilege of having your business return as a contracted vendor to our fair in 2013."
Other groups receiving the letter include the Democratic Party, the Tea Party of Hancock County and Hancock County Citizens for Life, a group affiliated with Right to Life of Indianapolis.
Councilman Bill Bolander said he thought it was "heavy-handed, especially considering what the weather conditions were, to treat a lot of people that way."
Councilman Joe Skvarenina noted that animals were sent home early that week because of extreme heat and thinks that people who left early because of weather conditions should have been granted an exception from the contract.
Agriculture association officials declined comment.
Sarah Burke, a Hancock County Purdue Extension educator and a non-voting member of the agriculture association board, said the panel is reconsidering its decision to exclude the groups.
"The program really depends on volunteers and support from the community," Burke said. "Without that support, we would be in a lot of trouble. That's why we are revisiting this issue, this topic, because we want to make sure we're maintaining good public relations. That's really what the whole thing is about. It's not about politics, it's about public relations."
GOP Chairwoman Janice Silvey said she hopes the decision is rescinded because the booth gives local elected officials an opportunity to talk with constituents.
"I think it's important every year that we have a presence there," Silvey said. "I honestly can't remember a year that we didn't have a booth there.
Even in an off election year, she said, "I think people still expect you to be there just because of tradition."