Of all the races in Mammoth and Mono County in the June 3 primary election, the one campaign that might not be settled is in the Mono County District 5 race.
In this Mammoth-only contest, veteran campaign watchers see a run-off looming on the November general election horizon.
Former Town Council member and Mammoth High School teacher Kirk Stapp, 69, is running a nuts-and-bolts realpolitik campaign heavily focused on the county’s budget struggles.
Stacy Corless, 43, formerly director of the Friends of the Inyo and, most recently, the Mammoth Mountain Community Foundation, has a broad-based campaign that emphasizes her record as a hand-on, can-do coalition builder.
Eckert, 57, who as a property manager and snow removal specialist, and is a fixture around town, is running a maverick campaign, much of it based on how public lands are to be used.
Each is running for a seat that has been vacated by four-term supervisor Byng Hunt.
“The three of us in this race have pretty much three distinct positions,” said Eckert in a recent interview.
“If the voters will research each of us, I think they’ll be able to find one of us who will really suit what they’re looking for in District 5.”
The race will be over only if one of them wins an outright majority.
All of them agree on one thing, however, and that’s to stop the decades of bickering between Mammoth and Bridgeport.
After that, however, the three candidates offer wildly different campaign planks.
Eckert, who served for one year on the Mono County Grand Jury, said he is banking on his years of residency and friendships here. Although never a candidate for elective office, he said he has had decades of what he calls “civic observance.”
“I have time now,” he said when asked why begin a public life at this point.
“You raise your kids, they go to school and, at least for myself, I didn’t have a whole lot of college savings set aside so it wasn’t easy getting them through.
“But now there’s a little less weight on my shoulders. I’ve lived here for 50 years, served on the grand jury for a year, but I haven’t had a lot of time for community service.
“I have the opportunity to do it now, so I think it’s a good time to get back in.
“I would consider more civically observant than engaged. I haven’t really spent that much time on various commissions and committees and that sort of thing, but I’ve been very much observant.”
The question that begs itself is why he would run at the county level rather than the town level.
Although Eckert has a plethora of platform planks, ranging from economic development, county budget shortfall issues and workforce management, at the heart of his campaign, he said, is the use of public lands.
“The thing that is going to be the biggest issue in this District 5 race is what are we going to do with the land outside of this four-mile bull’s-eye that’s the Town of Mammoth Lakes,” he said.
“I see it as a resource for both quality of life for bringing new people into town and also as a resource for more diversified recreation.
“One of my opponents,” he said, referring to Corless, “has a history of just the opposite.
“The Friends of the Inyo has been using government money to close off some of these lands.
“I’m not advocating clear-cutting or strip mining or anything like that; I just see that what I’ve learned over the years is that once an acre is closed, it never will reopen for any reason whatsoever.
“I’m not saying we should be blanketing the hills with tourists, but we can’t afford to shut off any possibilities that we may want to take advantage of in the future.”
Corless said Eckert has misrepresented her position on public lands.
“I have personally, with these two little hands right here, probably done more to create access for public access certainly than either of my opponents,” she said, also in a wide-ranging interview.
“I’ve literally built a bridge on the trail to Steelhead Lake and cleared trails in the Lakes Basin, so just talking about open/closed, and access, actually reduces the issue into too simplistic a view.
“We have to move beyond access to infrastructure and recreation. One of the main reasons I’m running for this office is because I’m passionate about our public lands. If we don’t get people out exploring pubic lands and don’t give them an easy way to get out there, we’re limiting ourselves.
“I know some of the rules make people very angry, and I’d urge those people then to get involved in the process.
“Some of the hard stuff, the not-so-fun stuff, has been done, in creating a legal system of roads and trails in the Inyo National Forest. Now is the time to get out there and put up signs, improve routes, plan single-track.
“I’ve heard our public lands leaders’ willingness to do this and you’re seeing it now in Inyo County, with groups that started out angry and shaking their fists are now rolling up their sleeves, sitting down at the table, working with the BLM and the Forest to plan.”
Corless also outlined positions on the county’s strategic planning process, community development initiatives and in helping Mono County get out of the $4.7 million budget hole.
That particular issue—the budget—is at the heart of Stapp’s campaign.
After having sat on the Mammoth Town Council for many years, Stapp says he knows how governments work and, just as importantly, how they don’t function well at all.
“I’ve had a lot of experience with the town budgets,” he said in a one-hour interview that also included his views on recreation, tourism, community development and law enforcement.
“I’ve seen different finance directors bring me different kinds of budgets, from line-items to departments, so I think I can bring a much broader perspective to the budget that’s being presented.
“One of the things you have to do is ask what are the essential and non-essential services.
“Essential services are public works, finance, the sheriff’s department and that kind of thing. Non-essential services are parks and recreation, maintaining a community center and that sort of thing. Do you really want to put them on the chopping block?
“The answer is no, but you ask the community if they want to fund those things through an assessment district, or a partial tax to step forward to maintain that.
“And on the board, are the supervisors willing to put, in writing and in discussions, what are the essential and non-essential services? We’ve cut, we’ve taken 5 percent from management. We’ve done this, we’ve done that; we’ve taken furloughs, but then you need to bring some very difficult questions forward, and those things are hard.
“What do we do? Do you want paramedic service or parks and rec? Are you willing to step up and fund this?”
One partial solution to the muddle, Stapp said, is in fixing a “sunset” rule on budget matters as they relate to things such as tax assessment districts.
“If property tax comes back in four years and you have a tax assessment for four years,” for instance, “then the assessment district goes away. Or, if Mammoth Lakes property tax is down a billion dollars, and that hammers the county budget, and if you want this service and you stepped up to the plate with an assessment district, that, too, would be sun-setted.
“That is, if we get the money back from property evaluations, it goes away.”
The three District 5 candidates can go on and on, of course, each spinning the campaign this way and that.
The next chance they have for a public candidates forum is April 30 in Suite Z at the Mammoth Town Offices, when the Rotary Club will host a four-hour session for the county candidates.
In that forum, which begins at 5 p.m. the two assessors’ candidates get the first hour, followed by an hour with the sheriff’s candidates.
Corless, Eckert and Stapp will join District 1 candidates Larry Johnston and Bill Sauser for two hours, beginning around 7 p.m.
Given their campaigns so far, they probably won’t have trouble filling the time.