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Illinois State Fair boss: 'Unprofessional' Rauner aides forced out Ag. chief

In this Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015 photo, crowds wait for Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner to greet fairgoers during the Twilight Parade at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield. (AP File Photo/Seth Perlman)

The Illinois State Fair is known for its thirst-quenching “Lemon Shake-ups,” but the shake-up announced Thursday wasn’t leaving anyone smiling.

Just one month after the fair reported a huge drop in attendance, the fair’s director quit, saying he’s leaving because of the forced resignation of his boss, Illinois Department of Agriculture director Phil Nelson.

“The way they handled it was very unprofessional,” said fair director Patrick Buchen. “They wanted him to sign a resignation right there on the spot and wouldn’t give him a reason why he was asked to resign. He asked to see the governor, and they refused to let him see the governor.”

Gov. Bruce Rauner on Thursday announced the resignations of Nelson and Buchen.

“I appreciate director Nelson’s commitment to agriculture and his service to the people of Illinois,” Rauner said in a written statement. “I wish him all the best.”

No reason was given for the resignations. The governor’s office wouldn’t say why they stepped down.

According to Buchen, Nelson was forced out.

“I told Phil last night in an email that if he was asked to resign, I would follow him out the door,” Buchen told the Sun-Times.

Buchen said Rauner aides asked for Nelson’s resignation. Buchen said he couldn’t stay on as director without him.

“I owe this job to him, and I wasn’t going to stay here working for these guys downtown,” Buchen said. “There are just some really bad apples downtown. The citizens deserve to know that agriculture had a huge hit today by asking him to resign with no apparent reason whatsoever. I don’t know what they were thinking.”

Nelson will remain employed for the next 30 days to help with the transition. Rauner has appointed Illinois Department of Agriculture chief of sStaff Warren Goetsch as acting director while a search to replace Nelson is underway.

The governor’s announcement came shortly after attendance numbers at the Illinois State Fair showed just 411,547 people passed through the gates during the fair’s 11-day run in Springfield Aug. 13-23, compared to 844,649 who attended in 2014.

In March, the Illinois Senate confirmed Nelson’s appointment by Rauner. Nelson previously was president of the Illinois Farm Bureau and is a fourth-generation grain and livestock farmer.

Buchen was announced as the next state fair manager in May. He was born and raised on a farm in Fulton County, and his family had longstanding ties with the fair. His family holds an “Illinois Centennial Farm” designation dating to 1863, according to the governor’s office.

Buchen previously was executive director of the Indiana State Fair.

At the time of his hiring, Buchen called the post “a dream come true.”