Mammoth Lakes would create a government entity to help manage its myriad recreation components under a proposal that a special, 32-member super-committee sent to the Town Council this past week.
The committee, known as the Mammoth Lakes Recreation Steering Committee, made the recommendation Monday evening, Aug. 19, after nine hours of discussion over three separate meetings.
The new entity, to be called Mammoth Lakes Recreation (MLR), would be in the form of a non-government nonprofit, with a structure along the lines of Mammoth Lakes Tourism, Mammoth Lakes Housing, and the Eastern Sierra Transit Authority (ESTA).
It would work alongside the town government in key areas, most importantly in the management of Measure R and Measure U tax funds, which were self-imposed by voters and which provide a non-stop, dedicated flow of money.
“Somehow, we have to find stability,” said Bill Sauser, the chair and longtime member of the town’s recreation commission.
“That’s the whole thing on MLR. If we move recreation outside, we’ve created more stability than what the municipal recreation [department] has had, as long as you also say you cannot eliminate certain things.
“We’ve never been able to find that stability.”
In effect, the new MLR would function in recreation in much the same way Mammoth Lakes Tourism functions, but with some important hybrid aspects, the committee recommended.
Colin Fernie, who represented the town’s Planning and Economic Development Commission, said a hybrid was essential.
“Our mission is to be the best alpine recreation area in the country,” Fernie said. “Are we there? No. I’d love to see that we are there.
“In thinking of how we can get to that level, the original project is to determine if there is a need for MLR. I would say yes,” he said.
“By adding this separate piece that can augment, rather than supersede, municipal recreation, we can achieve that. But it cannot and must not devalue current municipal recreation.
“There are certain things fundamentally that make sense to fit into municipal recreation and certain things fundamentally make sense to be in another entity.
“There are certain things that need to stay in core municipal services, and we [should not touch that], and there is also a value to having a separate entity that can maybe enhance the recreation product by going after some things that fundamentally don’t fit within the municipal recreation structure.”
The most forceful argument for the creation of such an entity came from Mayor Rick Wood, a longtime council member and former recreation commissioner who said the Town Council should get out of the business of “micro-managing” the recreation department and leave it in the hands of professionals.
“I’m looking for an opportunity or means by which we can get rid of the micro-managing, and the politics that go along with that, and instead strategically manage the resources we have. There is fear of the unknown, but there shouldn’t be, because we’ve done it three times before.”
Wood argued that the MLR approach is pragmatic.
“If we’re going to dream forward, or move forward, or lean forward, the capacity resides outside government rather than inside government, without taking away with what we do inside the government. That’s the pragmatic approach.”
The committee sidestepped some major warning signs, such as how municipal employees might react to such a scheme.
In a letter to Town Manager Mariana Marysheva-Martinez, a representative of the union that represents them characterized such a move as “probably illegal.”
How that particular issue plays out would not be known until the council crafts an actual proposal.
Until it acts, though, some members of the committee remained skeptical, such as Teri Stehlik, also a recreation commissioner.
“We don’t have what the next step is going to be,” she said. “There needs to be a next step, and it needs to be identified and clearly stated, otherwise we’ll have spent money on another step and another process, but it won’t move forward.”
The committee, made up of each recreation entity and user group in Mammoth, including new acting principal Chris Powell of the Mammoth Unified School District and other ancillary organizations (Friends of the Inyo, for example), was directed by Carl Ribaudo of the Strategic Marketing Group that is based out of South Lake Tahoe.
Michael Ward, chief strategy and innovation officer of the HighBar Global Consulting group, led the meetings and acted as a facilitator.
Neither Ribaudo nor Ward took positions on the committee’s recommendation, but both offered comments from time to time.
“Can Mammoth Lakes Recreation be entrepreneurial in a public sector?” Ward asked rhetorically before the final meeting began. “This group is leaning that way.”
Finally, Ribaudo offered his two cents.
“I’d suggest that the political strategy for municipal funding needs to be considered as well,” he said.
“City and town councils react to political pressure, and maybe this is an opportunistic way, as the budget grows and the economy improves, to increase the support for such an important municipal function.
“Political strategy may need to be looked at, reviewed and enhanced. You’ve done a great job in articulating the need [for an new entity],” he said.