Although the shape of the proposed Mammoth Lakes Recreation (MLR) entity has yet to be decided, the MLR Steering Committee agreed in the third of three workshops on Monday, August 19, to recommend that Town Council consider the formation of an MLR.
The Steering Committee, composed of more than 30 members from organizations including Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, the U.S. Forest Service, Friends of the Inyo, Mammoth Lakes Trails and Public Access (MLTPA), Mammoth Lakes Foundation, Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra, Town Recreation Commission and Town Council, met twice prior to Monday’s meeting to discuss the MLR. The question they sought to answer was whether the Town requires an independent MLR to more efficiently meet the recreation needs of the community.
Michael Ward, Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer for HighBar Global Consulting, asked participants in the third workshop to “suspend your organization and leadership roles, and see if you can’t adopt the perspective of the community.” From this perspective, he had Steering Committee members speculate on what the Town would gain and forego if it were to keep the existing municipal recreation structure, or if it were to form a new MLR entity.
Recreation Commissioner Pat Agnitch objected to this either/or approach, as did other members of the Committee, wondering why the Committee couldn’t consider enhancements to the municipal recreation structure as well as an MLR. She expressed concern that the Steering Committee was being steered toward adopting an MLR, considering the Committee had spent six hours in the two previous workshops identifying gaps in the current municipal recreation structure.
“I’m not steering you toward either,” said Ward. “Trust the process that I’m inviting you to participate in.”
The proposal for the creation of an MLR has sparked controversy, with some speculation that an MLR would outsource all work currently performed by Town staff to a less transparent and efficient third party. A recent letter from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees alleged that the privatization inherent in an MLR would limit input from the public, replace jobs currently held by Town employees, raise the price of services, and cede control of recreation facilities and services to a private vendor.
Regardless of the potential negative ramifications of creating an MLR, the Steering Committee agreed that the current municipal recreation structure has a ways to go before fulfilling the recreation needs of both locals and visitors.
The Committee concluded that municipal recreation currently offers the benefit of an organization that is Town controlled, community minded, transparent, and resource-available (particularly because of Measure R and U). Yet if the Town were to stick with the current municipal recreation structure, the Committee noted that it might forego the strategic implementation of existing plans, new opportunities for funding, and innovation and growth, among other things.
Meanwhile, the Committee struggled to identify what the Town would gain or forego with the formation of an MLR, considering the MLR remains something of a mystery. Ward explained this continued lack of definition as the “pre-box stage” of the assessment process. “I’d like to define [the MLR] by what you declare,” he said. He urged the Committee to dream big before it got down to brass tacks; “Don’t talk yourself out of your own aspirations,” he said.
With this in mind, the Steering Committee concluded that an MLR would offer the gains of outside funding, increasing the types of recreation represented, focused leadership, economy of labor and operations, and the ability to take risks as well as react more quickly to market demands, among other things.
On the other hand, the Committee decided the MLR may invite fraud, abuse, a higher cost to participate in activities, lack of transparency and efficiency, a market-driven loss of programs and facilities, and loss of Town control.
While Agnitch warned the Committee that, “It’s easy to dream, and look forward to something,” Recreation Commission Chair Bill Sauser offered an opposing view, noting that a number of participants in the workshop “Are fearful of this [change], so the bias is toward the status quo.”
Audience member Sandy Hogan argued that the Committee should acknowledge the historic accomplishments of the current municipal recreation structure, “In spite of the lack of funding,” she said. The existing programs and facilities “Didn’t happen by accident,” she added.
Ward agreed with Hogan’s assessment, saying, “I can’t think of a community in its right mind that would abandon [this] management. But your vision may be beyond the scope of what municipal government can achieve.”
Mayor Rick Wood echoed this sentiment, characterizing Town Council as “micromanaging” in its approach to delegating funding for recreation. The capacity to move recreation forward, Wood said, “resides outside of government.” He pointed to Mammoth Lakes Tourism as evidence of the success of this approach.
“I wonder if this conversation isn’t a metaphor for how we in Town do our work,” mused Eastside Velo President John Armstrong.
Steering Committee members ultimately settled on a hybrid vision, pursuing an MLR entity while continuing to support and consider options for innovating municipal recreation.
The Steering Committee recommendation will go before Town Council, and depending on Council’s decision, the Committee workshops may continue in a second phase to consider what form the MLR will take.