Mammoth’s legal team kicked into high gear this past week, preparing for a make-or-break appeal to a Sacramento bankruptcy court.
The process will begin next week, said Mammoth Town Manager Dave Wilbrecht.
If the legal team, led by Town Attorney Andrew Ross, wins its case, there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel for a town carrying a $43 million legal debt that it says it cannot pay.
Lose it, Wilbrecht said, and the Town probably would have to find a way through the thickets of the bond market to try to come up with the cash, at whatever terms to which the bondholder and the Town would agree.
This is not about wishful thinking or finding a soft spot in a judge’s heart. This is a bottom-of-the-ninth case, built on strict legal precedent and the rule of law.
Mammoth never wanted to be here, but this scenario hardly caught anyone off-guard.
“I wish this hadn’t happened,” said Mayor Matthew Lehman, “but it’s not the way the cards fell for us.”
The cards fell in a hurry on Monday morning when the Town Council instructed its legal team to file for municipal bankruptcy protection. The Town immediately issued a press release regarding the Town Council decision.
“Bankruptcy, unfortunately, is the only option that the Town is left with, after its largest creditor, Mammoth Lakes Land Acquisition, repeatedly refused to mediate its $43 million judgment against the Town, and obtained a state court order requiring payment of the full judgment by June 30.”
The decision was hardly a surprise, said Mayor Pro Tem Rick Wood.
“We had no option,” he said, “and I think it could be universally stated by everybody here that we don’t feel good about it. But it was a necessary and unavoidable step under the circumstances.
“In some ways, and I don’t want to say it’s anticlimactic, but this has been brewing over some time. We sure tried to avoid it, but here we are.”
The intention to file for bankruptcy was the talk of the town in Mammoth on the Fourth of July, as paradewatchers and fireworks aficionados discussed a different kind of independence – any kind of path to avoid yet another crushing legal defeat.
Was there a hidden political message in the Trojan Horse parade float designed by Karen and Mono County Supervisor Larry Johnston? Did the warriors accompanying the float represent lawyers? There were a few cracks about the lineup of firefighting trucks, as if they were there to put out some kind of fire.
In Sacramento, the bankruptcy court can accept the Town’s argument and set out a payment schedule, or decline to settle the case.
Opening presentations were to be made next week.
Wilbrecht said the Town would present a mountain of evidence to sway the court to accept its position.
At the heart of the position is the Town’s well-documented plan to reserve at least $500,000 this year – and for at least the next five years – for payment of the debt.
Should the bankruptcy court accept the Town’s plan, which was crafted in large part by Assistant Town Manager Marianna Marysheva-Martinez, the Town’s obligation could get kicked down to about $5 million-$6 million.
Earlier this year, a state judge ordered the Town to pay the full $43 million by June 30. That date came and went last Saturday, and the Town, on Monday, declared its intent to file for bankruptcy.
On the other side of the take-it-to-the-judge battle will be the legal team representing MLLA.
“They’re going to fight this,” Wilbrecht said. He said the opposing attorneys do not want the settlement in the hands of a court, and MLLA believes it has a strong case for keeping it out of bankruptcy court.
Under municipal bankruptcy law, if Mammoth wins the case, the court would determine the schedule of payments.
It will not be an overnight decision, Wilbrecht said. He said the Town’s legal team has advised that the entire mess would be cleared up “by the end of the calendar year.”
The MLLA attorneys, as has been their custom, declined to comment on the case, other than to say that MLLA will contest Mammoth’s bid for protection.
In its press release, the Town said, “ … a mediation that might have succeeded in avoiding a Chapter 9 case failed because a crucial party (MLLA) simply refused even to attend and discuss any issues it might have.
“The Town will ask the bankruptcy court to process its Chapter 9 case efficiently and quickly. The Town has limited financial resources and cannot afford a long drawn-out case. If the case lasts too long, it will significantly reduce the Town’s available funds, necessarily reducing recoveries to the Town’s unsecured creditors.
“While the Town proceeds with its Chapter 9 bankruptcy case, it will remain open for business as expected, with the support from other governmental agencies:
“• The Police and Fire Departments, along with other safety partners such as paramedics and Sheriff’s office, will provide high levels of response and care;
“• Road, parks and airport maintenance services will continue as scheduled;
“• Town Office business hours and service deliver will continue as usual without interruption of services;
“• Community services and providers such as Mammoth Hospital, Mammoth Community Water District and Mono County are separate from the Town and are not impacted.”