The Town of Mammoth Lakes’ Wildlife Committee is walking a fine line. Still trying to determine what it wants to be when it grows up, at its meeting on March 23 the Committee danced around whether or not it wants to become a standing committee for the Town and therefore have to comply with the Brown Act, or whether it should continue meeting on an ad hoc basis.
“We are probably not working as we should be,” said Committee member and Mammoth Police Chief Dan Watson.
Originally formed as a subcommittee of the Town Council to deal with bear issues while Steve Searles was not employed as a contractor by the Town, the group has grown and evolved into a committee with meetings open to the public. As Searles is again contracting with the Town and sits as a member of the Committee. Expansion and changes going forward will need to be vetted before the Town Council.
One such change that may be needed at the Committee level is staying away from discussing employee contracts in open session. On Wednesday the group openly negotiated Wildlife Specialist Steve Searles’ contract in front of the public, evoking a comment from new Interim Town Manager Marianna Marysheva-Martinez that employee contract discussions were usually held in closed session.
But the ball was already rolling and Chief Watson had already laid out what Searles wanted in his new contract, which would go into effect July 1. The new contract, if approved by the Town Council, would last for three years and would include an evergreen clause, meaning it would continue until Searles was terminated or the contract was renewed. Searles would receive a cost of living raise, a stipend for healthcare (which would be less than what the Town pays its employees), and a gas card to the Town’s pumps. He would also be paid the same amount each month of the year rather than basing his monthly pay on how busy he was (i.e. paid more during the times when the bears are most active).
Council and Committee member John Eastman was in favor of the changes.
“We’re not giving Steve a raise, we’re bringing him up to where he should be,” Eastman said, referring to the 10 years or more that Searles provided his services to the Town for free.
Mayor and fellow Committee member Skip Harvey, however, was concerned that some of his constituents would have an issue with what amounts to $16,000 in additional benefits and pay to Searles’ current contract.
“I have a lot of people ask me how much of your time is spent with wildlife and how much is spent getting extra footage for the television show,” Harvey said to Searles.
Searles pointed out that having the film crews around was actually an added benefit to his position for the same cost because of all the equipment and technology that he had access to while they were here.
Harvey suggested that the healthcare stipend be spread out over the three year contract, giving Searles one-third of what he was asking this year, two-thirds next year and the full amount in the third year of the contract.
Searles, however, stated that “asking for health insurance was not asking too much,” especially since much of his work often puts him in harm’s way.
Marysheva-Martinez agreed to evaluate the position to determine if what Searles was asking for was reasonable. The Committee agreed to send the contract to the Town Council will all of the changes being requested included.
As for the Special Event Food Vendor Permit Language regarding the proper storage of food, the MLPD is still working on it. Watson also said that he is still waiting to hear from the Forest Service about whether or not a training program could be used to qualify Searles to use firearms on Forest Service land, an action he is not allowed to take at this time because he is not a law enforcement officer.