By Deb Murphy
Remember that Strother Martin quote from “Cool Hand Luke:” “What we got here is failure to communicate.” That pretty much defines Tuesday afternoon’s Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Board of Commissioners meeting.
After more than three years of lease negotiations between the department and Owens Valley lessees, a resolution to approve changes in the structure and rate schedule appeared on the Commission’s agenda.
Inyo County found out when a reporter from the local paper called Monday afternoon. Sierra Wave got a notification call from the department’s public information officer about the same time.
The meeting was live streamed at LADWP’s Bishop office to a full room. Many of the attendees scrambled for copies of the resolution summary and letter approved at the Inyo Board of Supervisors’ meeting that morning and brought by Rick Benson, assistant county administrator. Board Chair Jeff Griffiths headed south to attend the meeting in person.
The supporting documents focused on ranch leases, but commercial leases appeared to be lumped into the one-time assignment/family transfer policies. The family transfer policy is self-explanatory: leases can be passed down to family members—the way ranchers have operated for the last 80 years.
The one-time assignment was more dubious for the 151 commercial lessees. A lessee could sell his business once without turning the lease back to LADWP to be put out for competitive bid. Subsequent leases would be done by competitive bid, unless the lessee used the family transfer policy.
What owner in his right mind would pour assets into a business when faced with a competitive bid future five years down the line?
According to the supporting documents, justification for the one-time assignment policy was just weird. The department lease policies come under the Charles Brown Act of 1945, specifically designed “to promote stability and continuous use of land by existing lessees in Inyo County.”
The Act allows the department to by-pass the competitive bid process if it is “in the public interest.” The “public interest” apparently supported a one-time assignment to a third party, but not the continuation of ranch lease policies that have applied for the past 80 years.
Los Angeles’ City Charter requires a competitive bid process for leases. Though it has never been challenged in court, the Charles Brown Act trumps the City Charter.
Cut to the chase: Before any discussion, the resolution was altered to remove commercial leases; only ranch lease policies were up for a vote at the phone request of County Administrator Kevin Carunchio.
Ranch lease changes were approved with the deletion of a $570 annual administrative fee that would increase by three percent a year at the request of Matt Kemp, area rancher and Inyo/Mono Cattleman’s Association president. “The fee would be hard on the smaller leases,” he said during public comment.
The fees would have gone to defray the department’s $107,000 cost of administering the leases.
Kemp questioned the “far below fair market rent” description of lease charges, increased housing rents for mobiles or City-owned housing on ranch leases and a fee to process dry finding requests that would lower property rents when full water allotment are not delivered. Kemp pointed out that the cattle market dropped by half last year.
So that was it: ranchers know what their leases will look like but commercial rents are still up in the air.
Letter from Inyo County
Mr. Mel Levine
President, Board of Water and Power Commissioners
111 North Hope Street
Los Angeles, California 90012
SUBJECT: Consideration of Resolution Approving One-Time Assignment and Family Transfer Policies for Rental Agreements Located in Inyo County and Changes to Ranch Lease Rent and Fees
Dear President Levine:
Late yesterday afternoon, a reporter from the Inyo Register provided the Inyo County Administrator with a copy of a request to the Board of Water and Power Commissioners to approve a “One-Time Assignment and Family Transfer Policies for Rental Agreements Located in lnyo County and Changes to Ranch Lease Rent and Fees” (“Policy”).
The consideration of this request is an item on today’s agenda for the meeting of the Commission. The adoption of the Policy, which changes ranching and commercial leasing practices that have been in effect for over 80 years, will have long lasting economic and, perhaps, environmental impacts in the Owens Valley.
Given the short notice regarding the consideration of adoption the Policy, the members of the Board of Supervisors have not been afforded with an opportunity to discuss the potential impacts of the policy with their constituents who lease property from Los Angeles for ranching and commercial purposes. Thus, the Board is not in a position to provide detailed comments concerning the impacts of the Policy at this time.
Equally important, although the staff report regarding the Policy states that there have discussions with the ranch lessees with respect to the Policy, there is no indication in the report that there have been any discussions between LADWP and its commercial lessees in the Owens Valley concerning the proposed Policy.
In view of the Policy’s potential impacts on commercial lessees, such lessees should have been provided with an opportunity to express their views on the Policy.
By this letter, as LADWP’s partner in the Owens Valley, the Board of Supervisors wants to make the Board of Water and Power Commissioners aware of the County’s concerns with the Policy. That having been said, the County is aware that LADWP’s ranch lessees in the Owens Valley have been operating without formal leases for several years.
This “holdover” situation has placed the ranch lessees in a very difficult position. Consequently, the Board of Supervisors strongly urges the Board of Water and Power Commissioners to direct that the renewal of all ranch leases expeditiously move forward—even if the proposed policy is not adopted by the Commission at today’s meeting.
Thank you and the other Commissioners for your consideration of this request.
Vice Chairman, Inyo County Board of Supervisors