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Out of our league

January 8, 2011

MAMMOTH TIMES EDITORIAL

"We were out of our league."

So said former Mammoth Lakes Town council member Kathy Cage, after learning the Town lost its appeal of the airport/Hot Creek decision last week.

“We didn’t have the expertise we needed to negotiate such high level agreements,” she said.

Cage’s assessment could all too easily be applied to far more than just the most recent airport embroilment.

The appeals court’s Dec. 30 decision that found the Town on the wrong side of a $30 million lawsuit is only the latest in a series of high-profile legal snafus.

There was the lost redevelopment lawsuit in the late 1990s – a case that almost tore the Town apart at the seams.

There was the Sierra Club’s victorious lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration in the mid-2000s.

And the Eric Hugelman decision; another embarrassing – and expensive – moment for the Town.

When all is said and done, it’s getting harder to swallow the oft-touted local line that the Town of Mammoth Lakes is just the victim of a series of biased judges and juries.

Rather, it’s looking more and more like Cage might be more right than she’d like.

When the 66-page appellate court decision came out, it painted a picture not of malice, not even of hubris as many have said, but of bumbling.

Bumbling in communication, bumbling in legal advice, bumbling in effect.

Missing faxes, missing facts, unclear lines of command and responsibility.

All that bumbling, ill-intended or not, may have been enough to infuriate the appellate judges to the point of not fully addressing all the valid merits of the Town’s case, according to two high-placed local attorneys.

Mammoth has what many consider an admirable form of government, an “egalitarian,” “weak mayor” system designed to make sure not too much power is concentrated in one individual.

Mammoth’s mayor can’t veto, can’t appoint people, can’t do much more than a regular council member could do.

But there is a price for this egalitarian system. Unlike many cities, there is no ”buck stops here” individual in the Town. It would be short-sighted to point the finger at the Town’s manager, as some have. That doesn’t work either. He’s an “at-will” employee; only the council makes decisions.

And to make it more complicated, and for whatever reason, Mammoth has been through four Town Managers during the airport mess, leaving even that chain of command – and the accompanying responsibility that should go with it – much missing in action.

Mammoth has a lot going for it.

A lot of snow, a lot of beauty, a lot of good-hearted public servants and overworked community members all trying to do their jobs, most with nothing but the best of intentions.

What it doesn’t have is anyone, anywhere, who is publicly responsible for knowing what the hell is going on with every single aspect of the Town at any time.

With no strong mayor, there’s simply too much diffusion of responsibility to even know who did what, and stop it, if need be.

With a Town Manager whose every decision must be approved by the council, the same.

Without top-notch legal advice, someone sitting in on every single Town action like an eagle, the same consequences.

It’s still a young town, and these bumbles could possibly thus be forgiven.

But the Town dreams big, and that requires big expertise. The price of not having it, and the lack of accountability, is getting very high.

How’s that egalitarian thingy working out for you now?

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