The duties of the Mono County Fish and Game Commission (MCFGC) seem relatively simple from an outside perspective: advise the Mono County Board of Supervisors on fish rearing and stocking.
In addition, the commission is directed to provide oversight for the county fish management study and Conway Ranch activities, coordinate Fish Enhancement actions, and provide insight or consultation as needed.
It shouldn’t be overly complicated to take care of those assignments.
And yet, to hear Mono County Economic Development Assistant Jeff Simpson explain things to the Board of Supervisors, it’s become quite difficult to get even the simplest tasks completed with the commission.
“Meetings have become increasingly contentious, unprofessional, and sometimes inappropriate,” Simpson said of the MCFGC. He related that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has issued notice that it will no longer be attending the meetings unless asked to do so in writing and approved by its regional director.
The situation, he said, has become difficult to manage.
“We did have a commissioner walk out of one meeting,” he said, “I’m spending time on the phone before meetings and after meetings talking about the issues that happened throughout the meetings and coaching commissioners on appropriateness and professionalism.”
Simpson added that while debates and differences in opinion are welcome during the course of meetings, “individual agendas within this current structure create roadblocks.”
Simpson outlined 4 issues facing the commission:
Issue 1: The duties of the commission as assigned by the Board of Supervisors: Simpson reported confusion among commissioners about priorities and duties, and how to properly agendize items.
Simpson’s solution was to have an annual Board agenda item with county staff to determine recommendations for the coming year.
Issue 2: The terms of office for the vice-chair and chair. Commissioners are elected to one-year terms for those positions; the current chair has held the position for six years. Simpson recommended eliminating both positions and having county staff coordinate and manage the meetings.
Issue 3: Appointment terms and qualifications for commissioners. Supervisors are supposed to nominate one commissioner each, with the remaining two nominated by any person. According to Simpson, there is no record of nominations dating back to 2003. Additionally, there is no guidance on geographic or residency requirement.
Currently, no one represents the Bridgeport or Lee Vining communities.
Four of the seven current commissioners have their respective terms expiring in June 2021, making the appointments a pressing issue. Simpson suggested advertising the positions county-wide and appointing commissioners from a wide array of communities.
Issue 4: Fish stocking allocations. Historically MCFGC
has made recommendations to county staff and has not held any final decision-making power as commissioners may hold financial stake in where and when fish are stocked and the commission would be rife of conflicts of interest.
Given the controversy and tensions surrounding the stocking decisions, Simpson recommended either solidifying county staff having the final say or devising a procedure that gives the Board final say.
Simpson estimated that he spends 20% of monthly work time on the commission and its myriad issues.
Digesting Simpson’s presentation, Supervisor Stacy Corless asked, “What would the process be to hit pause or suspend this commission?”
County Counsel Stacy Simon said that since the MCFGC is managed by the Board, Supervisors have discretion to take any action they may want.
Other supervisors expressed worries that the commission was too focused on the fish-related aspects of their duties and not enough on the game/wildlife side.
In response to a question from Supervisor Bob Gardner about conflicts of interest among commissioners, Simon said that MCFGC merely serves in an advisory role and does not have the final say on anything. In addition, many recommendations are modified by county staff before implementation.
If commissioners recused themselves, Simpson added, “you’d end up with a very eviscerated commission.”
“Their expertise is very valuable but it’s the public perception about conflict of interest that we’re trying to avoid,” he continued.
MCFGC Chair Gaye Mueller joined the meeting to discuss Simpson’s presentation. She said that the commission had been working on bylaws for the past couple of years and referenced one line that reads “commissioners shall accord the utmost courtesy to each other, county employees and the public … and shall refrain from abusive comments and statements”
“These problems have escalated,” Mueller said, “As we saw at the January meeting, something really needs to happen because we have one commissioner who’s very contentious, disrespectful.”
According to Mueller, the commissioner in question made derogatory comments towards CDFW during a meeting, which resulted in CDFW barring representatives from attending future meetings.
Mueller, the commission chair for the past six years, said that while her strengths didn’t necessarily align with running meetings, she felt that the chair position was still important and didn’t see a need to rotate it on a yearly basis.
Commissioner Don Morton followed Mueller’s comments and opened by stating, “We’ve got to run meetings by bylaws. As Gaye said, her strength is not in running meetings. By definition, the chairperson’s responsibility is to run meetings.”
“I also believe it would be a conflict of interest for non-residents [of Mono County] to be commissioners,” Morton added. Mueller currently lives in Bishop.
Morton also took issue with the difference in stakes for Inyo and Mono counties. He referenced the Conway Ranch fish rearing project, calling it a “fiasco”, and questioning why Mono County would stock Rock Creek Lake (in Inyo) when it provides no benefit to Mono.
Commissioner Jim King felt that the commission should return to recording minutes at meetings, a practice he says stopped when Simpson took over as lead. In regards to Simpson taking on responsibility for running meetings, he said “With all you have going, I kind of hesitate to see you take over anything else as far as trying to run the meeting, you pretty much run the meeting anyway. I just don’t feel we should add anything else to your plate.”
King also rejected Morton’s take on Rock Creek Lake, stating that there had been estimates that 90% of the people fishing on that lake were camping or staying in Mono County. Furthermore, the county counsel at the time said that the decision was justified as Rock Creek Lake had influence on the local economy.
Crowley Lake-based Commissioner Sue Burak said she was “dismayed by these petty conflicts and disruptions to the important issues we have to deal with as a committee,” and expressed her opinion that the commission should be focusing on climate change and its impacts to local fish populations.
“Being the new kid on the block, one of my frustration has been reading bylaws and then people on the commission choosing which bylaws we’re gonna do and which we’re not gonna do,” said Commissioner Jim Ricks. He advocated for rotating the chair and vice-chair positions each year, and considering term limits for commissioners.
“Yes some of the meetings have been contentious but it’s not just one,” Ricks said, “it’s back and forth. I’ve heard commissioners sit there and call fishermen and supervisors ‘idiots’ and the chairperson sitting there and not saying anything.”
Jeff Parker was the last of the commissioners to speak. “I joined this commission approximately 5 years ago just as a concerned fisherman,” he said, “I’ll admit I’m extremely unprofessional but I don’t think I’m rude.”
Regarding the chair positions, he said “Nobody wants the job, but we have gone through the motions [of elections] every year.”
He continued: “If we have somebody that really enjoys the job and doesn’t want to change, why not let her keep doing the job?”
“I am the guy who walked out of the meeting,” Parker said, “There is one individual on the commission who keeps trying to tell us about sustainable fishing … how can he get mad if he doesn’t have an answer to the problem?”
Supervisor John Peters suggested not disbanding or suspending the commission, as meetings have been delayed for the next two months, and advocated for Simpson to manage the meetings. With Simpson in charge, there would be time to assess the bylaws and align them closer to the Board’s values.
“We’ve got to take a step back here,” said Corless, “This commission is advisory to the Board of Supervisors, and I don’t think there’s any consensus on what they’re advising on.”
“The thing that rose to foreground to me is the lack of civility,” said Board chair Jennifer Kreitz, “It’s hard to focus on work when emotions run so high … I’d be in support of disbanding the board.”
Kreitz said that she’d never heard MCFGC weigh in on fish kills, adding “it seems that you might’ve been concerned about kills on Wilson creek, [but] it seems to be very much still focused on stocking.”
With the support of three supervisors (Gardner, Kreitz, and Corless), the Board instructed Simon to draft a resolution that the commission would be temporarily suspended to give county staff time to work on potential restructuring.