Wednesday, 24 July 2024

Miss Lake County Pageant: Leaders seek to rebuild organization

This is the second installment in a two-part investigation into the challenges currently faced by organizers of the Miss Lake County Pageant.


LAKE COUNTY – After four and a half decades, the Miss Lake County Pageant is facing more than its fair share of challenges as it seeks to rebuild in the wake of turmoil in its leadership and concerns over its finances.


Contestants have struggled to get their scholarship money following the departure of Trish Combs, who was the pageant's executive director for three years.


After Combs moved to Washington state last year, the Miss California Organization granted a franchise agreement to Tino and Kathy Gamber, who Combs had recruited to lead the organization.


But concerns about the pageant's finances, and Combs' unwillingness to turn over any accounting, caused the Gambers to step away, as Lake County News has reported.


The state pageant then asked Sandra Orchid and Carla Butler to take over the local pageant's leadership, which they did last December.


But with no financial records or legacy funds from past years, Orchid and Butler have been faced with trying to put together a pageant with, essentially, no funds, which has caused them to have to reschedule the pageant to January.


Insight into how the pageant runs


Cheryl Herrick, who ran the Miss Lake County Pageant for 20 years before recruiting Combs to succeed her in 2005, explained that the pageant signs a franchise agreement with the state pageant, which is renewed annually.


She said when she ran the pageant – backed by a nine-member committee – there was no queen's closet, that they had a few dresses and a handful of swimsuits to help contestants.


The last year she ran the pageant, 2005, they gave out $18,000 in scholarships, an “unusually large” amount compared to the $5,000 to $6,000 given out in average years, based on the number of girls in the event, which usually averaged around eight or nine. One year they had 17 contestants.


Herrick said scholarship money was raised through various sources, including annual fireworks sales, which she said usually netted about $8,000 at most.


With a City Council vote in June, those fireworks sales now are gone, although a ballot initiative is set to go to city voters this November. That initiative will allow the city's voters to restore the sales, as Lake County News has reported.


Herrick said the local pageant organization was never audited by the Miss California Organization. However, she was required to make a yearly report on scholarships.


The local pageant also has to follow certain guidelines for handling the program and scholarships in order to be considered a preliminary pageant for Miss America, she said.


Herrick said she ran the program year-round, with a short break during the holidays. After she retired in 2005, Herrick said she no longer stayed involved in the local pageant, although she's judged a few other pageants since then.


Red flags arise


Karen Wilson, the director of the Miss Lake County Outstanding Teen competition and the local pageant's committee secretary, said she and Combs were “glued at the hip” when Combs was the pageant's executive director.


“It was the best year and a half of my life, I can tell you,” Wilson said, recalling Combs as being a dynamic and positive person.


Wilson said Combs put a lot of money into the pageant. “Everything she did was first class.”


But, at some point, Wilson added, “Something appears to have gone terribly wrong, whether it's personal or financial.”


It began with small things. For instance, Wilson was puzzled when Combs told her not to contact pageant contestants with instructions on how to claim their scholarships.


She said executive directors sometimes will send out letters telling contestants what they've won. In 2008, Wilson wanted to do just that, but Combs told her not to, saying it would teach the girls responsibility to figure it out for themselves.


“Little did I know that the girls sometimes just don't ask for it,” Wilson said of their scholarship money.


The issue of who had the organization's check book arose shortly before Combs left the area.


For Wilson, who had worked in a bank for 16 years, not being able to find financials was a “danger sign.”


“It got to the point I was afraid to ask,” she said, adding that she knew something was wrong.


Shortly before Combs left, she put out more of her own money, writing Wilson a personal check to cover a hotel room in Fresno for a pageant-related trip.


Wilson said she hasn't attempted to speak with Combs about the situation since she left.


She said the Gambers did everything possible to get the money and the financials straightened out, but they couldn't succeed.


The entire situation has come down to jumping through hoops “to the point of ridiculousness,” said Wilson.


While Wilson still characterizes the situation as “a mess,” she said the current committee is working well together, and both Orchid and Butler have paid a lot of money out of their own pockets in order to push forward.


Wilson said she's also briefly talked to a sheriff's deputy about the case.


Combs said she was working with Arnhym to get things sorted out. “I just need to get this cleared up. I'm worried about the girls. I'm worried about the program.”


However, pageant officials disputed that claim. They also disagree with Combs' assertion that her daughter Saundra, a former Miss Lake County, started the queen's closet in 2006 to help other contestants. Combs told Lake County News that the dresses and clothes belonged to her daughter.


Combs said she has been to Lake County several times and went to the sheriff's office to discuss the investigation, which she said has “cost me a lot of money.”


“So much energy is being put into making me look bad,” she said.


Regarding the organization's funds, Combs said she has an out-of-area accountant, who she did not name, who handles the money. Information about the pageant's current financial situation were not provided by Combs, and an attempt to contact the accountant, whose name was provided by another source, was unsuccessful.


Combs had indicated over the summer that she intended to organize an August pageant that didn't materialize.


She said the former Miss Lake County Web site, www.misslakecounty.org, still belongs to her, and she can be contacted through it by contestants who want to collect their scholarship money. She also can be e-mailed at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Combs also said the name “Miss Lake County Scholarship Organization” belongs to her.


“I will do whatever it takes to continue the program,” she said.


Building a new organization


Bob Arnhym, president and chief executive officer of the Miss California Organization, said he's been trying to counsel the various sides, and keep an overview of what's happening.


“We have absolutely no relationship to them financially,” he emphasized.


Arnhym said it's up to the pageant's participants to apply for their scholarships. “They must pursue it,” he said.


He said he's spoken to investigators and to Combs' attorney, and has urged to her to put together financial documentation, including an income and expense statement. “On a number of occasions she has promised to do this.”


Because he hasn't been contacted by creditors or contestants, Arnhym said, “I can't say that she has outstanding bills that she hadn't paid.”


He said that the Gambers have asked for an accounting of the money, and Combs said she would acknowledge that.


Ultimately, Arnhym said he needed to leave the issues up to the local committee.


“It's frustrating for me,” he said. “I'm sure it's frustrating for others in the community.”


Arnhym said he doesn't want “to let anything like this slide.” He said that, while he doesn't have a legal obligation to the local pageant, he feels that he has a moral obligation.


With no money and no financial records from the past leadership, no August pageant was held. The local committee initially planned to reschedule for November, but late last month, the local committee made the decision to push the pageant back further, to January 2010.


Orchid said she hasn't had any time to even think about organizing a pageant so far, because she's been so busy trying to track down the amounts that are owed to the past contestants. And there's other money, besides that set aside for scholarships, that hasn't been accounted for yet, said said, because no records are available.


On a brighter note, Orchid and Butler have received the all clear to move forward for another year from Arnhym, who last month issued them a new franchise agreement.


Combs did not respond to further questions from Lake County News this week regarding outstanding payments to contestants, the pageant's leadership or finances.


It's now a rebuilding process. Getting the local pageant off the ground will require about $5,000, Orchid explained.


“This pageant is really important because it is a small county,” she said.


For those interested in donating time or money to assist the new organization, visit its new Web site, www.misslakeco.org or contact Sandra Orchid at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Follow Lake County News on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LakeCoNews and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Lake-County-News/143156775604?ref=mf .

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