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Our View: The Temple of Folly

July 6, 2012

We were outdoors Tuesday morning and found ourselves at the Hayden Cabin off Sherwin Creek Road.

It’s a lovely spot early in the morning, with the brook babbling, the songbirds singing and trees sighing in a light breeze.

It was the day after the Town of Mammoth Lakes declared its intent to enter into bankruptcy to take care of the $43 million in legal debt it incurred during the expansion of the airport.

We wandered up to the flat where E Clampus Vitus had built a memorial to the first thriving business in old Mammoth City—a bar-grocery-hardware store called “The Temple of Folly.”

That, in turn, led our minds to the late historian, Barbara Tuchman, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for history, whose 1984 book, “The March of Folly,” examines folly as “A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period. The pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests.”

Tuchman takes the worldview, and it’s a great read: Why would the leaders of Troy drag that suspicious-looking horse inside their walls despite every reason to suspect a Greek trick? How and why did George III lose America? That kind of thing.

We took the micro-view of folly in light of the bankruptcy, trying to process the decision-making process by the successive town councils that followed horrendous legal advice and ill-begotten policies, in spite of genuine civic debate.

To qualify as folly, Tuchman asserts that the policy must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely in hindsight; a feasible alternative course of action must have been available; and that the policy in question should be that of a group and not an individual leader.

Mammoth qualifies on all three criteria.

Near the end of her prologue, Tuchman tells the story of Count Axel Oxenstierna, the chancellor of Sweden during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) under the “hyperactive” Gustavus Adolphus. Although not king, Ol’ Axel wore the pants, so to speak. As the wise old Count lay dying, he counseled the country’s young head of state, “Know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed.”

It got weirder around here on Wednesday, the Fourth of July.

With just 30 minutes to spare on its legal requirement for calling meetings, the Town Council on Tuesday afternoon called a special meeting for the afternoon of the federal holiday to discuss the diversion of up to $400,000 in Measure U funds to cover airport subsidies on behalf of Alaska Airlines (p.1).

Voters in Mammoth Lakes passed Measure U with the understanding that the monies would go toward arts and recreation. The council, however, found a loophole in the “mobility” aspect of the measure, which is called, technically, “Mammoth Lakes Mobility, Recreation and Arts & Culture Utility Tax Ordinance.”

The proposal, initiated by new Mayor Matthew Lehman and new councilman Michael Raimondo, was tabled for Wednesday’s special council meeting.

Even so, the council’s move smacked of a hush-hush, blindside political maneuver. Our guess is that if voters had known they were voting for an airline subsidy instead of, say, a decent arts venue, they’d have turned the measure down flat.

On Tuesday, and then again on the Fourth of July, of all holidays, we say we were hoodwinked, sucker-punched, duped, bamboozled—call it whatever you want.

It stinks.

For years, the political cognoscenti around here called the Council Chambers “The Bull Ring,” saying it with a wink to make up for that missing bit on the end of “Bull.”

Given our leaders’ recent activity and our own unique past, we’d like to go back to where we came from and re-name the chambers.

“The Temple of Folly” has a true ring to it.

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