'Fix-It' Council leaves on high note

After four years of extraordinary municipal crises and a topsy-turvy electoral campaign, three members of the Mammoth Lakes Town Council this past week stepped down.


But before they did, all of them offered reflections on their time in office.


“I thought when I ran for office again four years ago after a hiatus of four years,” said Rick Wood shortly after the June 3 election, “I wanted at the end to leave this place in a little better condition than when I found it.


“I think that this council did that. We did it in profound ways and not so profound ways. 


“Originally we were the ‘Fix-It Council’ because there were a whole lot of problems four years ago that we faced, not the least of which was facing down the most extraordinary, epic, financial crisis that any community, much less a community of this size, could have faced. 


“We just went about trying to resolve problems that in many people’s minds were insurmountable. It turned out they weren’t.”


Wood and John Eastman, both veteran council members, left the dais on Wednesday, June 18, after choosing to not run for re-election, as did Matthew Lehman, who stepped aside after one four-year term.


Taking their spots were John Wentworth, Shields Richardson and Colin Fernie, who won seats June 3 in an eight-way race for council positions.


Jo Bacon, whose seat was not open for election, was selected by the new council as Mayor—a position she will hold for one year as per the rules of the town government.


Lehman offered the three new council members some first-hand advice on June 4, during a council meeting one day after the election.


“I don’t think a lot of people understand what it’s like to be up here,” he said. “I know when I came on, I thought I could handle two meetings a month, but here we are, a hundred meetings later, plus the special meetings and the committees and commissions.


“So for all you new council members out there, let me give you a quick story of what to expect.


“When you go out to dinner, people want to sit down and talk to you, or they’ll come in to your place of work and say, ‘You know, I really have an important thing I want to talk to you about.’


“Most people are pretty courteous about setting an appointment, but they aren’t always.


“When we were going through the bankruptcy, it was, needless to say, a little challenging,” Lehman said. “It was September, we were right in the midst of it and I felt like I needed to take a break and get out of here.  


“A good friend of mine and his brother suggested a five-day hike in the backcountry. So went up there above Twin Lakes, and saw only about five people during a five-day hike.


“Twenty-two miles in, a guy passes us, and my friend’s brother mentioned that I was the Mayor of Mammoth Lakes, and this guy says, ‘Really? I’ve got to meet this guy. I’m a federal bankruptcy court judge!’  


“So he starts asking me stuff and I said, ‘All right, I’ll answer some questions, sure.’


 “That was 22 miles into the forest, and for all you new members coming on, that’s what you’ve got to look forward to.”


Levity aside, though, Lehman said his four years on council was by turns challenging, frustrating and yet, rewarding.


“It’s been like earning a master’s degree in these last four years, whether it was the bankruptcy [process], the detail and depth with the budgets and really, what happens with our government.”


Eastman, who first came on council more than two decades ago, also addressed the “fix-it” nature of the council, particularly in the past two years.


“Just two years ago,” he said, “the Town of Mammoth Lakes had a council election with two seats up for re-election and only two people ran, and so we didn’t have an election. 


“It was also two years ago that this community went through the most traumatic episode in the history of Mammoth Lakes, and that was the bankruptcy. 


“But the Town of Mammoth Lakes faced the lawsuit, the bankruptcy and the settlement processes, and then moved forward. 


“We’ll be handing over a financial condition to the community and the new council members that, yes, has a $2 million a year payment on the lawsuit, but it’s also a budget that is balanced, and the Town of Mammoth Lakes is the only government entity in the group of Inyo, Mono, Inyo County and the City of Bishop that does not have a structural deficit.”


It also is handing over a town government that has undergone some fundamental changes, Wood said.


“We did something even more important for the long term, and that is that we changed the way this government does business. 


“We did by effectively out-sourcing things that we think function and be done better than by the quasi-private or private sectors—transit, tourism and marketing, housing, of course, and most recently and notably, recreation.


“This is not a night to say that we couldn’t have done better and couldn’t have done more. But what we’ve done is left this place a little better off than what we found four years ago.”