Is 14K More Than Fool’s Gold?
This week, a new Trails Host program was officially unveiled as part of the solution for the congestion in the Lakes Basin. The program will place two “Trail Hosts” up in the Basin providing information and oversight – even if the oversight comes with no regulatory authority.
Stuart Brown, the Town’s Parks and Recreation Manager, told The Sheet last week that Joel Rathje, the Town’s Trail Manager, would be overseeing the program. But when The Sheet asked how one can apply for the position of trail host, Brown gave the email of the operations manager for Mammoth Lakes Trail and Public Access Foundation (MLTPA).
Why? Further, what is the difference?
At a Wednesday, August 5, Mammoth Lakes Tourism meeting, Executive Director John Urdi, told board members that not having the Mammoth Welcome Center open this summer has “saved” $14,000.
This $14,000 will leverage funds dedicated to Mammoth Lakes Trails System to pay for the $30,000 Trail Host program.
Maybe a little late to the punch (could’ve used this program starting June 19) but Urdi did mention this will be a program the Town looks to continue, “For sure, next year I see us partnering with the Town and MLTPA to make this happen.”
But then Jeremy Goico, the newly elected Vice-Chair for MLT asked, “Can you explain to us the difference between MLTPA and Mammoth Lakes Trails System? I do not understand the difference.”
Here is how Urdi answered the question: “Mammoth Lakes Trails System is a program directly through the Town of Mammoth Lakes. MLTPA is contracted annually to do planning work. And the Mammoth Lakes Trails System is really the execution wing.”
This is the basic way to explain it. But how the infrastructure has evolved to get where we are now is worth a look.
Trails System Master Plan
The most important part of the oddly nuanced inner-workings of managing trails is easily the Trails System Master Plan.
The Town of Mammoth Lakes created a Trail System Plan in May of 1991. After multiple incarnations, the current Mammoth Lakes Trails System Master Plan was officially established in 2011.
This is the bible. The holy text of all things related to trails in the Town of Mammoth Lakes.
The 300+ page document has everything from possible trails to funding strategies to how trails should be configured.
Mammoth Lakes Trails System
So the Town had its playbook. All it needed was a system to execute the playbook.
In fact, TOML even had a funding stream readily available for this execution. Measure R, established in 2008, provided a funding source that
could pay for trails but, at the time, no governing body was overseeing the funds on a regular basis.
In 2015, the Town contracted with Mammoth Lakes Recreation “to oversee a new Trail Coordination program adopted by the Town Council. Through this contract MLR provides program and fiscal oversight for the Mammoth Lakes Trail System,” reads the TOML website, “To achieve this MLR convenes and facilitates the Mammoth Trails Committee which meets regularly to provide direction and oversight for the Mammoth Lakes Trail System.”
At the same time, the Town hired Rathje to oversee this new Town-centric program.
Then there is MLTPA, founded in 2005 by current Town Councilman John Wentworth.
From 2006 to 2012, MLTPA was focused on leveraging funds and building trails. Although MLTPA was not responsible for all, Wentworth says 70 different projects were completed with over $20 million of investment into the local Trails System.
When the Mammoth Trails System was introduced in 2015, the Town essentially had two options: 1) Have a functioning trails department that is entirely in-house or 2) Hire Rathje and a few seasonal workers and attempt to use a non-profit such as MLTPA to do the dirty work. The TOML chose the latter course.
According to the Town website: “[In 2015], (MLTPA) was contracted by the Town to provide supportive services for the Mammoth Lakes Trail System program including GIS services, data collection, analysis, graphics, project management and planning. MLTPA works intimately with the Mammoth Lakes Trail System Trail Crew (employees of the Town) to maintain their capacity to undertake trail design, construction, and maintenance.”
The Current Structure
This leaves us where we are today. “We [MLTPA] are Joel’s hands if you will. He is just one guy and he knows he has a contractor at his disposal to achieve what he needs,” said Wentworth.
Sheet: Why not have it all in house?
Wentworth simply believed it was fiscally responsible, “Our billable rate compared to what the town pays for contractors is about a third per hour.”
Rathje agreed, “It would likely be more expensive for the same number of human resources if it were all under the umbrella of The Town.”
Here is how it all works:
Mammoth Lakes Recreation is the oversight. They established the Mammoth Trails Committee which evaluates projects directly sourced from the Mammoth Trails System Master Plan.
The current contract with Mammoth Trails System grants $300,000 a year to complete miscellaneous projects from the Master Plan.
The Committee then decides how to spend it. The plan is then brought back to Mammoth Lakes Recreation for approval. If MLR says yes, then Mammoth Lakes Town Council gets a stab at it. And if it gets past Town Council, individual projects are submitted to The Forest Service for review.
“Nothing gets decided unilaterally,” said Rathje, “All of the different layers of vetting provides multiple touch points for the public to be involved.”
“It is set up in such a way, that Joel over the course of the year, can say I want to move money from this project over to this project,” said Wentworth.
And when that happens, MLTPA does the paperwork. That is not all MLTPA does, but when it comes to the Mammoth Lakes Trails System, they work up until the shovel hits the dirt.
Wentworth views MLTPA as an organization that could serve as a model for others. b“We are [working to create] a ground up, locally grown, recreation management model that can be replicated,” he told The Sheet.
“The basic model is that these are public partnerships. Public agencies partnering with federal agencies,” Wentworth said as he rattled off all the different types of agencies that have similar interests allowing a coordinated front.
Wentworth believed these “public- public” partnerships are good for the communities they represent.
As for examples, Wentworth mentioned the Eastern Sierra Sustainable Recreation Partnership in which MLTPA “provides convening, facilitation, and technical support,” as well as the Sustainable Recreation and Tourism Initiative (SRTI) which MLTPA “provides services through a contract with the Town on behalf of the Eastern Sierra region.
As to the question of the possible conflict of interests of the board of MLTPA, Wentworth made one thing clear, “The CEO works for free, the executive director is not compensated. No one on the board is compensated.” The contract signed with the TOML gives the hourly rates of the employees of MLTPA and all of that is publicly available.
The board composition is ujnique. John Urdi, Executive Director of Mammoth Lakes Tourism, serves as the treasurer. Wentworth serves for Mammoth Lakes Town Council and is also the Founder/ President. Wendy Schneider, Executive Director of Friends of The Inyo, serves as Vice President.
“Our board is stronger for having those diverse and competing interests,” said Wentworth.
Rathje anecdotally referenced the board as well when he told The Sheet that although he occasionally disagrees with Schneider, having her on the board adds a voice that might otherwise be ignored. Rathje values this diversity.
Finally, The Sheet asked Wentworth a question along these lines: “Do you think anyone knows all of this? Are your fellow Council members even aware of how this all works?”
Wentworth answered simply, “We have failed to inform the public of our actions. We have a lot of work to do [on that front].”