On Tuesday, what looked like an innocuous agenda item of annual reports for Inland Aquaculture Group (IAG), as well as the Conway Ranch Foundation (CRF), the 501 c3 attached to Conway Ranch as part of their contracts with the County, ended up spilling over into discussion of potential pending litigation between IAG and Mono County.
The item under debate is an invoice for $11,132.19 submitted to the County by the CRF on Nov. 20, 2012. According to Raven Angeles of IAG and CRF, the invoice is for expenses and revenue losses caused by a pipeline installation at Conway Ranch last November.
The CRF claims that Mono County’s Director of Economic Development Dan Lyster promised that the County would cover the costs of this project. The County, however, disputes that it should pay the entire invoice.
In a letter written to the Board of Supervisors in Jan. 9, CRF Board member John Frederickson wrote:
“This invoice covers expenses and lost revenue incurred by the Conway Ranch Foundation due to County staff’s instructions regarding the Conway Ranch Bell Pipeline Project.
“During the May 7, 2012 Mono County Fisheries Commission meeting Staff stated; the water would be turned off for two nonconsecutive days, that he would work with us to coordinate with the contractor to insure the water would continue to flow, and he would be out there.”
Frederickson added that “Staff” stated that construction would begin Oct. 1.
“During the September 10, 2012 Mono County Fisheries Commission meeting Staff stated; we (County) will be using our 3” pump and the pipe that we (CRF) has piece [sic] together. At this meeting, I asked Dan [Lyster] outright, ‘Who is going to pay for all of this?’ Dan replied, ‘I guess the County.’” Frederickson continued in his letter.
According to Frederickson, the CRF ceased activities at the Ranch on Sept. 20, 2012 to prepare for the Oct. 1 construction date. On Oct. 2, CRF spoke with the contractor who said according to County direction, construction was not set to begin until Oct. 15. The project finally got underway the first week of November.
However, since Conway Ranch had already closed down at the end of September, it had to remain closed throughout October, creating a loss in revenue.
“We had no alternative but to remain closed for the season,” Frederickson continued in his letter to the Board. “It would have taken another week and a half to reopen at which point we would have been able to remain open for one week before we would have had to shut down again. Not fiscally responsible and not healthy for the fish to be shuffled to and fro.”
This lost revenue was included in the invoice CRF sent to the County. The County claims it is only responsible to pay $854.19 of the invoice for the cost of fuel to run the 3-inch pump loaned to CRF from Mono County, and the cost of pick-up and return of said pump.
In a letter dated Jan. 29, former County CAO Jim Arkens wrote to the CRF. In the letter he stated that since CRF continued to demand full payment of the invoice, the County was now regarding the demand as a claim for damages.
On Tuesday the Board of Supervisors pushed hard to move away from talk of lawsuits.
Supervisor Tim Fesko said that he was present at the Mono County Fisheries Commission meetings in question. “According to my interpretation, there were promises made by staff during those meetings. We need levelheaded discussion, not lawsuits. The Conway Ranch Foundation is a partner and we need to treat them as such.”
“We need to be succinct and spell out exactly what we’re doing,” Supervisor Byng Hunt added.
The Supervisors stressed communication between the parties rather than a lawsuit. However, when Angeles then asked what else could be done to get the invoice paid, County Counsel Rudolph said that CFR could go to court.
“Seriously, is that good communication?” Angeles asked.
In a follow-up email, Angeles told The Sheet, “We were very surprised that after all five Supervisors spoke of the benefits of good communication just moments earlier, that Marshall Rudolph stood up and suggested we get an attorney and sue the County.
“If [a lawsuit were to occur], it would be [filed by] IAG. That’s why Marshall’s suggestion that CRF sue was such a surprise.”
Angeles added, “Supervisor [Fred] Stump’s suggestion to get future County commitments in writing was well received. It is a real shame that a nonprofit public benefit corporation that has brought in over $206,000 for the benefit of Conway Ranch cannot rely on verbal commitments made by a County Director.”
The Sheet spoke with Lyster on Thursday. His only comment at this time was, “Their [IAG/CRF] expectations might have been different than what the County was able and willing to provide.”
“We need to sit down in a non-adversarial position and talk,” Supervisor Tim Alpers concluded at Tuesday’s meeting.
Some Alpers’ history
At one point Alpers was a partner in IAG and a Board member on the CFR. In 2011 he signed over his ownership to his two partners (one being Frederickson) and gifted his interest, and he has also resigned from the CFR board. According to County Counsel Marshall Rudolph, Alpers does not have a conflict of interest to discuss matters relating to Conway Ranch. When it comes to conflict of interest law, there is a 12-month wait period after divesting yourself from a financial interest before you can then make decisions on that topic.
Alpers, however, has been extra cautious and told The Sheet he would be recusing himself from discussions regarding Conway Ranch during his first year of office.
“I’m not, however, conflicting out of economic development, which includes fishing,” he said.
During his term as a Supervisor in the 1990s, Alpers did run into a conflict of interest situation. He was sworn into office in 1993 and still held a contract with the County for providing trout. He was told by County Counsel at the time it was not a conflict for him to be a supervisor as well. Two years into his term, a fellow supervisor, Paul Roland went to CSAC, or the California State Association of Counties, where it was explicitly stated that someone couldn’t be a supervisor and also hold a contract with the County.
Alpers was told he had to choose between the contract and fulfilling his term as supervisor. He chose to fulfill his term and canceled the contract. However, once his term was up he said he was approached again by the County to start his contract back up again because the County could not find any big fish to substitute for his Alpers Trout.
Alpers said that today he does retain the rights to his name and is allowing IAG the use of the name for marketing purposes.