Lehman: Settlement 'a bitter pill to swallow'

Mammoth Mayor Matthew Lehman took off into the backcountry this past weekend, dropping by Rock Creek Resort for a slice of “Pie in the Sky.”

But judging by his remarks in connection with the town’s $29.5 million, 23-year settlement agreement with Mammoth Lakes Land Acquisition (MLLA), not even a slice of Sue King’s Mud Pie was likely to remove the bad taste in his mouth.

“The settlement is a very tough pill for me to swallow,” he said last Thursday, Sept. 27, at a special Town Council meeting that was called to inform the public of the settlement’s fallout.

“I did not vote on it lightly,” he said. “I wanted to fight to the end as well, but at the end of the day, after analyzing all the possibilities and all the outcomes, I realize that the settlement we ultimately came up with was the best decision for our community.”

Lehman, a Mammoth native who was elected after running on a platform of fiscal responsibility, said he did not know if he could ever see Mammoth the same way again.

“Every time I drive by the airport now, I'm going to look over a piece of land—a vacant parcel of land.

“It's been a vacant parcel of land since the beginning of time, and I'm going to wonder how this small town ended up owing $30 million on a property that has no improvements, no tangible structures, no real lots.

“I'm going to wonder just how we ended up with a $30 million judgment against us. I'm also going to ask, was it the town's ultimate failure to live up to its obligations that resulted in legal justice, or was this just a matter of the success of sheer greed? 

“I have my personal opinions on it and it makes me angry and frustrated.”

The settlement agreement, which removes Mammoth from bankruptcy court, is likely to fall heavily on the town. Town Manager Dave Wilbrecht unveiled an austerity plan that called for the elimination of 13 town positions, including seven police officers.

Those cuts are still under discussion, but whatever happens, the town must have a plan by Jan. 1,  Wilbrecht said.

Lehman was obviously very troubled by that prospect, but even more troubled by the idea that the town could still badly in bankruptcy court, even the court accepted Mammoth’s plea for a hearing.

To shepherd through the bankruptcy process has put the town on a “burn rate” of $1 million a month in legal fees, without any guarantee that it could recoup any of that.

For Lehman, that lack of sure success was the deciding factor in his vote to accept the settlement.

“There comes a time, I think, that we have to put anger and frustration aside,” he said.

“I’ve come to the realization that this option for us, this settlement agreement, is the best option— the best option out of a bunch of horrible options. But at the end of the day it allows us some closure.

“It allows us to move the ugly cloud of uncertainty out of the way and allows us to move forward, hopefully to begin a new and better and brighter future.

“It will take some time for all of you to fully understand and digest. In the end I hope you'll realize that this is the best option. It doesn't mean that Mammoth is over; it means that we're simply starting over.”