… Despite the fact that the USFS shows no “Big Love” for the idea
Even an ominous warning from the U.S. Forest Service wasn’t enough to deter the Mammoth Lakes Town Council from approving the formation of a Mammoth Lakes Recreation (MLR) entity at the Feb. 19 Town Council meeting.
For those who may not have sat in on any of the eight MLR Steering Committee workshops from July of last year to January of this year, MLR is a proposed non-governmental organization (NGO) that would outsource many current Municipal Recreation functions with the aim of enhancing recreational offerings and brand identity.
Perhaps the most controversial function MLR proposes to take over is the allocation of voter-approved tax Measures R and U. In fact, according to the current MLR proposal, MLR will be funded from Measures R and U revenues, with a projected overhead of 15-20%.
The current overhead for R and U is about 4%.
By approving the MLR Steering Committee recommendation for the formation of MLR, Council also approved suspending the Measure R and U award process, although this suspension would not limit the completion of current funding awards.
In addition, Council approved appointing members of the MLR Steering Committee to a new Transition Formation Committee; allocating $5,000 from the General Fund to support the formation of MLR; and developing a financing structure and scope of work to be brought back before Council in May of this year.
Mayor Rick Wood, also an MLR Steering Committee member, began the discussion with an argument in favor of MLR. “We have $1.8 million in combined funds from Measures R and U,” he noted; “this government today lacks the capacity to do the things that Measures R and U are envisioned to do.”
Wood previously cited the structure of Town government as a deterrent to achieving Measure R and U goals.
Strategic Marketing Group workshop leader Carl Ribaudo spoke next, noting that MLR was not intended to supplant Municipal Recreation, but rather to overlay it. “MLR, Municipal Recreation, and Mammoth Lakes Tourism [will] work closely to develop a strong synergy between recreational offerings and their promotion,” he said.
The proposed organizational structure of MLR would include a Board of Directors, Chief Recreation Officer, and support staff.
Although the Recreation Commission would remain, it would no longer allocate Measures R and U. The Commission “would be maintained and refocused to provide an advisory, support role for Municipal Recreation,” Ribaudo said.
Meanwhile MLR would absorb the implementation of the Trails System Master Plan, which could mean the dissolution of the Mammoth Lakes Trail System Coordinating Committee (MLTSCC).
“You are on the cusp of doing something really different and really big,” Ribaudo concluded. “I urge you to consider it.”
Many audience members were little-swayed by Ribaudo’s presentation. Pat Eckart, a 30-year Mammoth Lakes resident, voiced her fears about MLR. “I’ve seen the mistakes this town makes that cost us,” she said. “They’re based on getting more money, always.”
Eckart argued that Measures R and U were only ever intended to be allocated by the Town. “That’s what we voted for, believing [the funds] could only be for the Town to expend,” she said.
Resident Sharon Clark also worried about the effect of the change on community participation in Measure R and U allocation. “If you give this gold to a corporation with five directors, you’re effectively cutting out the community,” she said.
As for the continuing vagaries of the project, such as whether or not Town Council would have ultimate control over approving the MLR budget allocation, Pat Agnitch wondered, “How can a concept of this magnitude be approved without specifics? … In my opinion, a goal without a strategic plan is just a dream.”
Recreation Commissioner Betsy Truax presented the Recreation Commission’s questions and concerns, beginning with a request for more time to consider the final MLR report, which was only delivered to the Commission earlier this month. Truax went on to wonder whether the 15-20% overhead satisfies the intent of Measure R and U voters; what performance standards MLR might be held to over the next few years to evaluate the entity’s success; evaluate the entity’s success; and how the MLR might impact the existing Town/U.S. Forest Service Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).
USFS District Recreation Officer Jon Kazmierski spoke to this last question. “We’re generally concerned about this process and how MLR is evolving as it relates to the Town/Forest Service partnership,” he said.
Kazmierski drew attention to the products of that partnership, such as the Lake Mary Bike Path. “The Forest Service has been working in some untraditional ways in this new partnership,” he said. “It took five years to explore those limits and build the trust that led to the MOU.”
Given that trust, Kazmierski expressed surprise that the USFS was hardly involved in MLR discussions. Although Mammoth District Ranger John Regelbrugge participated in the first three Steering Committee workshops, expressing some of his concerns in that forum, “there wasn’t any follow up to discuss our concerns to date,” Kazmierski said.
“Some of the things proposed [by MLR] may not be allowed,” he said. “Permits and agreements are not transferable.”
Because of this, Kazmierski noted that the Town and USFS would have to explore both legal and policy hurdles as a result of the MLR formation. Given the USFS lack of funds and manpower, “It will take a long time to do that,” he said.
“I’d hate to see the Forest Service relationship impacted,” said Councilmember Matthew Lehman.
But Mayor Pro-Tem Jo Bacon argued that the Town would still have time to work out the kinks with the Forest Service while proceeding to form MLR. She noted that Mammoth Lakes Tourism took about three years to get up and running. “The Town could go forward while still working with the Forest Service,” she said.
Other Councilmembers ultimately concurred; the MLR Steering Committee recommendation for the formation of MLR passed 5-0. The Transition Formation Committee and Town staff will bring back a final MLR formation recommendation for Council consideration on May 21. MLR is set to launch on June 1.