Bob Kellar remembers the date well.
“You mean July 5, 1995?” the councilmember asked.
Indeed. As the last president of the Canyon Country Chamber of Commerce, Kellar recalls the date he sat at a press conference announcing the unification of the Canyon Country Chamber with the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce.
He also remembers the reason for the move.
Two years earlier, executive director Bonnie Barnard had made off with, according to Kellar’s estimates, between $75,000 and $80,000 over three or four years. She accomplished this by not paying taxes on the Handy Worker Program and instead keeping those monies. Later, the Internal Revenue Service got involved.
“We were not able to pay our bills,” Kellar said. “That’s what forced our hand. We were in a mess, make no mistake about it.”
Before the misappropriations, the Canyon Country Chamber “worked hard to represent businesses in Canyon Country,” Kellar said. Members would visit various businesses and survey what could be done to help their profits. These businesses were not necessarily chamber members, Kellar said.
“We were doing a form of economic development,” Kellar said. “The chamber lobbied for roads. We were very strong in the beautification of the area, and we’d give awards to businesses (who beautified the area).”
The big annual event was Frontier Days, a celebration of the Old West and Santa Clarita’s pioneering days. Attendance of more than 20,000 was common at the four-day event, which would feature a parade down a one-mile stretch of Soledad Canyon Road, country-western music and dance, concerts, a tractor pull, fake gunfights, carnival and a rodeo, which was located at the fairgrounds on which now sits the Vista Canyon development.
The event ran for 31 years, 29 in Canyon Country, and after the two chambers came together, at Saugus Speedway for a year and across the street (where River Village now sits) for a year.
According to an article in a festival program by Linda Pedersen, the early celebrations included donkey rides for the adults, plus muddy pig wrestling and greased pole contests for the children. There also was a Frontier Belle contest, in which the early winners had to demonstrate horsemanship.
Unfortunately, what chamber leadership failed to recognize was the possibility of a criminal in the midst. Barnard had been siphoning off funds for several years before Charlotte Tyree, daughter of Carolyn, the only full-time chamber employee, received a call from the bank informing them that a check had not cleared. That simple discovery led to a forensic audit that revealed the depths of Barnard’s wrongdoing. It centered on misappropriated funds from the Handy Worker Program, the same program now being run by the Santa Clarita Senior Center, which helps residents of low and moderate incomes repair their homes with work grants.
When the IRS came calling, Kellar met with the agent and assured him that, as a retired police officer, he was doing everything in his power to make this right.
“He got aggressive with me,” Kellar said. “He leaned in and told me, ‘You need to know that if we don’t resolve this, we’re coming after you.’”
Kellar said he sold a 1946 flatbed truck to help pay the costs.
Barnard never faced criminal charges. Instead, the two sides struck an agreement that if Barnard paid back at least $30,000, she wouldn’t be prosecuted. She did, and she and her husband, Grant, a bigwig with the Elks, moved to Palmdale.
“I don’t think her husband had a clue,” Kellar said. “I’m sure he was embarrassed.”
Grant Barnard died in 2011. There is a Bonnie Barnard listed as a member of the Palmdale Chamber of Commerce, but calls to the listed number were not returned.
Kellar believes that is the same Bonnie Barnard who caused such problems years ago. He knew the Barnards had moved to Palmdale, and he warned someone he knew not to let Bonnie near any money.
But the damage had been done. Adding to the problem was that the chamber did not carry directors’ and officers’ liability insurance, Kellar said, because no one saw a need.
Kellar and the leadership had no choice but to seek out the Santa Clarita Chamber to protect the Canyon Country members. Nine Canyon Country board members, including Kellar, became members of the Santa Clarita board; Carolyn Tyree went to work for the SCV Chamber.
“It certainly is a regret,” Kellar said. “We had every confidence in her. How many times have you heard this story? You have to always keep your guard up. There will always be somebody to play by different rules.”