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The eight candidates for Town Council gathered in one spot at the same time this past week in the first forum of the campaign season.
The surprise was that there were no surprises.
Citizens looking for old-style, Mammoth political pyrotechnics, replete with finger-pointing and blame-gaming, instead got something completely different.
While not exactly engaging in a Kumbaya session in the Council Chambers of the Town Offices (Suite Z), the candidates uniformly played nice across the board.
Sitting at a crowded dais, the candidates, who are running for three open seats in the June 3 municipal election, were Elena Blomgren, Colin Fernie, Cleland Hoff, Ken Murray, Deb Pierrel, Shields Richardson, Karen Sibert, and John Wentworth.
The two-hour forum, sponsored by the Mammoth Chamber of Commerce and moderated by past president Brent Truax, offered a packed room more a kind of political dodgeball game than an actual debate.
Some candidates adroitly spun out of the way of questions thrown their way by Truax; some were blindsided and stumbled through their responses; while others caught the questions squarely, with well-considered responses, to an unusually broad array of queries.
The questions covered topics such as single-family home rentals, economic development and diversification, the airport’s future, and overall customer service to visitors and locals alike.
Culled and edited by the Chamber’s Board of Directors from citizen write-ins as well as Chamber board’s own questions, Truax also offered at least a few of the candidates more philosophical questions, such as what the role of municipal government should be as Mammoth moves into the future.
However, the candidates got no questions at all about public safety, particularly the police department, nor were they offered questions dealing with the Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID) or upcoming negotiations with labor unions representing town employees.
None of the candidates offered any meaningful policy bombshells, except for perhaps Ken Murray, the general manager of the Chart House restaurant, who revived the age-old discussion about moving the airport to a different location, preferably Bishop.
Then again, the format itself did not lend itself to broad-based policy or to debate.
Under the rules, each candidate took a single question from Truax. The next candidate got an entirely different question, and so on, through two rounds.
Each candidate’s response was subject to a time limitation, too, so none of them spoke at length or in depth.
None of the audience members were allowed to ask questions, either, thereby eliminating the possibility of follow-up questions from the citizenry.
Adding an odd patina to the forum was the fact that none of the candidates are incumbents. Only two of them, Colin Fernie (Economic Development and Planning Commission) and Pierrel (the now-disbanded Airport Commission) had experience at the policy level in town government. Both Sibert and Blomgren have experience in working on the town staff, but not in policy-making decisions.
No one, therefore, had to defend a past vote, a past council action, or other on-the-record policy decision.
With no incumbents among the eight, audience members heard as much as what the candidates admittedly did not know, as much as what they did.
The members of the audience lingered for as much as a half-hour after the forum, splitting into small, informal groups to grade the candidates, declare winners and losers and so on.
For those who could not attend, the forum is streamed online at the town’s website, leaving room for plenty more debate about the non-debate.
The next candidate forum is Tuesday, May 6, sponsored by the Mammoth Lakes Foundation and co-sponsored by the Lions Club, at Cerro Coso College from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
The format will be different, though, said Juliana Olinka, the foundation’s marketing director.
At the next one, she said, the format will allow the candidates, who by that time will have had a chance to hone their positions a bit better, a chance for actual debate, rather than political dodgeball.