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Mammoth councilmember Rick Wood said he wants to set the record straight on the events leading up to the town’s $29.5 million, 23-year settlement in the MLLA case.
Speaking from the dais at the special town meeting on Thursday, Sept. 27, Wood said any further march into bankruptcy proceedings would have been foolish, even given Mammoth’s $2 million-a-year burden.
“You can only imagine the frustration of a lawyer and a politician being muzzled for a year on this,” he said.
“I don't need to explain again why we voted the way we voted other than to indicate that it was very important for me to get some finality, to get some certainty, and to do that as a result of a risk-factor analysis.
“That's what I did and that's the reason I came to a conclusion that I did, notwithstanding that I don't like the deal.”
Wood, an on-again, off-again member of the council from 1998 until now, said part of his remarks were in response to councilman Michael Raimondo’s assertion that he, Wood, was one of two former councilmembers—along with John Eastman—who was to blame for the financial mess into which the town fell.
In what was at best a quasi-mea culpa, Wood said that, contrary to Raimondo’s version of events, he was not on the council in 1997 when the town entered into the development agreement with Terry Ballas, nor was he on the council in 2008 when the town elected to take on Ballas and the newly-formed Mammoth Lakes Land Acquisition, Inc., in a Bridgeport courtroom.
For a full text of Rick Wood's Sept. 27 speech, click here
“The elephant in the room, if you will, is and always has been, how did this happen?” Wood asked rhetorically. “How did we get here? And who's to blame? Who's responsible for this? Not for this settlement, but for this problem.
“I’ve listened to it; I've heard it for the past year, as have all councilmembers. It's appropriate for this council to take responsibility for the actions, for its staff and itself; it's appropriate for past councils to take responsibility as well, but in the end, the blame doesn't do anybody a whole lot of good. It prevents us from moving forward.
“That said, I think it was probably very cathartic for Michael Raimondo to write his story, and I imagine it's going to be a community catharsis to put the blame out there and to reach back. The only value I can see in that, I do see some, is that it provides an opportunity to learn something from something that occurred in the past.”
The past, said Wood, is open to interpretation, depending on circumstances at the time.
“In 1997 we had an airport that we were unable to financially afford,” he said. “A developer came in and made a proposal to this town to enter into a partnership. That developer promised a number of things, the town promised a number of things and the town ultimately was found to have breached its promises.
“But there's something important to remember. We as a council as a whole and two of us, in the words of Michael Raimondo, have been tagged with responsibility for that.
“I would tell you that I was a member of the community in 1997 but I wasn't a member of the council.
“I was a member of the Parks and Recreation Commission in 1997 and I spoke in favor of the development proposed that was proposed before the council.
“I also remember clearly when the council at that time was wordsmithing a 55-year development agreement from the dais. I couldn't imagine at the time that we would be doing this. We didn't know much.
“There are a number of people in the community who somehow believe that I drafted that agreement. I've read the blogs. It doesn't really matter who drafted that agreement; or if we had capable town counsel; or that we had a capable town manager, or whether we were hoodwinked by Terry Ballas.
“The fact is, you do the best you can under the circumstances that you find yourself in. That's what that council did and that's what its attorney did and we went forward.
“I did what I was supposed to do (beginning in 1998), which was to try to fulfill the commitments that we had made in that agreement.
“Who's to blame? There isn't anybody to blame. Is it (town managers) Tracy Fuller, Steve Julian, Charley Long, Rob Clark? Every single one of them was well intentioned during that period of time.
“I met with the deputy director of the FAA and her engineering staff to try to convince them that the decision they'd made to rescind the approval that they had given to our agreement just three or four years earlier, was wrong. We were not successful. Is that the town's fault? The jury thought so, so we live with it.”
As for Ballas’ actions, Wood said he would not assign blame there, either.
“Do I blame Mr. Ballas for selling the cause of action or selling his development rights to MLLA? I'm not really happy about it but I don't blame him either, because quite frankly, I thought he was doing what he needed to do to protect his interests.
“So a lawsuit was filed in 2006. I didn't happen to be on the council at that time, nor was I on the council when the case went to trial in 2008, so I don't know what happened there. Do I blame that council? No. They did the best they could with what they had in the circumstances of the time.”
Wood did say, however, that he took strong exception to Raimondo’s criticism, calling them “naïve.”
“I cannot tell you how strongly I disagree with Michael Raimondo's remarks,” Wood said. “There is room for debate. I tried. I had the debate in closed session over and over and over again, but this is a democracy. We have different views. We hear the same information and process it differently and come to the same conclusions even though the process is the same.
“He is entitled to his opinion. It is OK. I believe it reflects the opinion of the segment of the community that suggests—and I think rather naively— that we should take out changes, roll the dice and let it go.
“I contend and submit that it would be a breach of our fiduciary duty as stewards of the town's money and the town's finances for us to have not in good faith attempt a settlement and reach a settlement on terms we could afford and that's the reason I went forward and voted for this plan.
“I was simply not able to persuade Mike Raimondo to do so, and I certainly respect his opinion.
“So where does it leave us? It leaves us with a dramatic restructuring that, as it filters out into the community, it's going to have us look a lot different and it's going to be very painful in many respects over the coming months.
“I also think that Mammoth has an extraordinary resiliency. It has shown it before. But more than that, it provides us with an opportunity to move forward with a shared vision that we can only have and we can implement, with this 800-pound monkey off our backs, and that's what we've done.”