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Controversy over Montezuma County Fair dress code violation continues

A teal-colored Hooey brand ball cap sits at the center of a long-running dispute between the Montezuma County Fair Board and a local girl who entered a 4-H poultry competition, winning a blue ribbon before it was taken away. The disagreement over an alleged dress code violation during last year’s county fair led to the young woman and her family filing a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Division that says she was subject to discrimination. The fair board denies that and says it did nothing wrong. More than eight months later, the disagreement is still going on.

Failed mediation

Complaints to the Colorado Civil Rights Division are not lawsuits. The division is charged with enforcing Colorado’s anti-discrimination laws in the areas of employment, housing, and public accommodations. It has a process for looking into complaints, and it seeks to have disputes resolved through mediation. But in this case, no resolution has been reached. On March 18, the division issued a seven-page “probable cause determination” that found that the fair board had violated the law regarding public accommodation. The division ordered compulsory mediation, the second mediation effort between the disagreeing parties. It failed.

During the April 23 meeting of the Montezuma County commissioners, county attorney Ian MacLaren told them that mediation had taken place the previous Wednesday, April 17, but was unsuccessful. “That administrative process through Colorado Civil Rights will continue,” MacLaren said. He told them the division could require a hearing before an administrative hearing officer, after which the division could issue a “right to sue” letter, or decide not to issue one. Or, MacLaren said, the division could issue a right-to-sue letter immediately, without the hearing. Such a letter which would mean the case could move on to litigation in state or federal court. “The administrative process has to be exhausted before civil claims can start, which is where we’re at,” he said.


The dispute arose on July 28, 2023, during the Montezuma County Fair. As reported last year in the Journal newspaper, the 12-year-old daughter of Mike and Erin Rubin of Mancos was competing in a 4-H poultry competition. The fair was nothing new to her; she’d participated the previous three years as well, according to various reports. On that day, she won the market show in her class, receiving a blue ribbon for her chickens. Later the same day, she was competing in the showmanship competition. However, she was abruptly disqualified because she was wearing a ball cap, and her blue ribbon was taken away, according to her father.

“She had won the market show for her class, age and type of birds,” Mike Rubin said in an interview with KSJD. “Everybody that wins their class all compete for grand champion and reserve champion. She didn’t get grand champion, but she had won her bracket.

“She was taking part in showmanship, which has a third-party judge. She was in the final of three rounds. The judge had no problem with her or her cap.”

However, according to Rubin, a member of the fair board then “came to me and my wife, took us outside, and said the cap would disqualify her from everything, so we had to go in and usher her out.”

Cowboy hats

The Montezuma County Fair has a rule book that states that exhibitors at the fair must “wear the appropriate show dress for the individual species classes.” If something comes up that isn’t addressed in the rule book, it says that Colorado State Fair Guidelines are to be followed.

The fair’s rule book states:

“All livestock exhibitors are required to wear appropriate show attire when competing. Shorts, tank tops, low-cut shirts, sheer blouses, flip flops, t-shirts, shirts with inappropriate messages or logos, ball caps, hats, or bare midriffs are not acceptable attire and may not be worn during a show event. Recommended dress is as follows: long-or-short sleeved, button-down shirt or blouse, clean jeans or slacks with belt. Hard-soled, closed-toe shoes or boots are recommended to protect the feet. Rabbits and Poultry: jeans or slacks and long-sleeved shirts are preferred for safety . . . “

However, Rubin said two other young competitors, both male, were allowed to wear cowboy hats.

In its March 18 letter of determination, the division states, “The Complainant asserts that she would have been satisfied had all competitors been held to the same rules but seeing as the rules were not applied across the board, she felt the disqualification should not stand.”

The county fair board (which is called the “respondent” in the letter of determination) takes issue with that.

“The Respondent denies the Complainant’s claim of discrimination and asserts that one of the two boys referenced by the Complainant was not a part of 4-H and was in a PeeWee showmanship, which is not regulated by it,” the letter states.

The fair board also contended it did not disqualify the boys because “the male competitors who wore hats received prior permission to do so,” according to the letter. The division’s letter says that the respondent provided “a handwritten letter from Heath Higgins. . . Montezuma County Fair Superintendent, stating that the boys were given prior permission three years ago and further explaining that new ‘cowboy hats’ and not ‘hats or caps’ were allowed.”

The Rubins argued that there isn’t any language in the fair’s rule book that provides for competitors to ask for permission to do something against the rules.

The daughter also said she wore a hat in 2020, 2021 and 2022 with no problems.

But the fair board maintains that the daughter had been “given a prior warning about rules concerning attire over a zoom call in or around July 22” from the poultry project leader, according to the division’s letter. The letter goes on to say that the daughter “alleges that she has no recollection of any statements made by Jeter regarding attire or hats and argues that she and her family were not told about a rule regarding hats as it was not in the Respondent’s official 2023 rulebook.” Mike Rubin told KSJD the statement that his daughter had been warned previously was “totally untrue.”

“That year there was the bird flu, so they did showmanship over Zoom,” he said. “You had to show pictures of your chickens. Nobody said anything about the hat.”

At last year’s fair, the two boys who’d been wearing cowboy hats were allowed to continue in the 4-H competition. Both boys kept their championships and continued on to compete in the showmanship event, and one of them won grand champion, according to the Journal.

July 28, the day that Rubin’s daughter was removed from the competition, was a Friday. According to the fair’s rules, animals can’t be taken from the fairgrounds until the following Sunday.

“If you remove your animals out of the fairgrounds before the fair is over, that’s a violation,” Rubin said. “It was Friday when this happened, and she could take them out Sunday.”

But he said it didn’t seem right for her to keep going to the fair to care for her animals after the incident.

“She would have to go back for the three days, feeding and tending for her animals. She was humiliated. So I went back and got the animals out.”

Grievance process

After his daughter was kicked out, the family went home and looked up the grievance process. Rubin said he then returned to the fair to hand in the grievance.

The board had a meeting that night, he said, but the Rubins were not allowed to attend. On Saturday morning he went back to find out the decision. “They said ‘your grievance did not prevail, but we’re also going to bar her from the fair for two years because her animals were taken out early’.”

But according to the division’s letter, the fair board “denies that the Complainant was banned for two years and states that the Complainant is welcome at the Fairgrounds as well as future events.”

Rubin said it’s good to know that his daughter can return to the fair.

Yet another issue in the matter is whether the board responded appropriately and according to the rule book when it had the daughter disqualified after she had already been competing.

The rule book says a competitor whose attire doesn’t meet the dress code may be denied entry – not taken out after the person has already been competing.

The analysis in the Civil Rights Division letter states:

“The rule states that the competitor may be denied entry until properly dressed, but the Complainant was not refused entry; rather, she was allowed to compete and completed her exhibition in two separate events, one of which she won without being refused entry.”

The investigator for the Civil Rights Division found that the fair board violated Colorado law regarding discrimination in places of public accommodation.

“. . . the evidence is sufficient to give rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination based on the Complainant’s protected class,” the letter states.

Seeking reimbursement

The county has supported the fair board. County administrator Travis Anderson told KSJD he can’t comment on the Rubin case, but was willing to speak generally about the fair.

“The county fair is important to our community and to the kids,” Anderson said, “and 4-H is mightily important as well, so the goal is to ensure its success. The fair gives kids experience they can take throughout life.”

County attorney MacLaren declined to comment on the issue, saying it wouldn’t be appropriate. The county commissioners have said little about the matter at their meetings.

On Aug. 8, 2023, Mike Rubin addressed them during the public-comments section of their regular meeting. He told them the fair board had made an “arbitrary and capricious decision to disqualify the female contestant, but did not disqualify the two males for exact same infraction.” As is their general practice with public comments, the commissioners did not respond, merely listened.

According to the letter from the Civil Rights Division, the fair board denies the claim of discrimination and maintains that the removal of the daughter was “based on legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons.” Whether the dispute will move on to actual civil litigation is uncertain.

Rubin told KSJD the family is not seeking some big settlement. “What would be justice? We talked about that as a family. We’d like a letter of apology or acknowledgment saying that they did something wrong.” The family would also like the daughter to be paid for missing out on the poultry auction, he said.

“I have checks from the past three auctions,” Rubin said. “They should reimburse her for missing the auction. She didn’t have a chance to participate. It would be a small number. We’re not looking for a big payout.

“They should acknowledge what they did, let her back in the fair, not ban her, and reimburse her for financial loss for the chickens.”

Rubin said taking part in the county fair was enjoyable for his children in the past, but this whole dispute has raised doubts.

His daughter “has trepidation about going back this year, for sure,” he said. His son is planning to go.

“We have had nothing but a great experience from 4-H. A year ago, if you would have told me we would be in the middle of a big argument over the fair, I would have said no way.”
Copyright 2024 KSJD

That story was shared with us via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Gail Binkly is a career journalist who has worked for the Colorado Springs Gazette and Cortez Journal. She is currently a freelance writer as well as the editor of the Four Corners Free Press, based in Cortez.