Divide In Big Bear Lake Over Tourism & Short-Term Vacation Rentals To Be A Factor In November 8 Race

In Big Bear Lake, hidden away in the rustic northeast corner of the San Bernardino Mountains, a cultural civil war is playing out in this year’s municipal election, one in which there stands a chance that the reigning political establishment will virtually overnight be extirpated.
At the heart of the contest is the continuing identity of the county’s second-smallest city population-wise and third smallest city geographically as a tourist community first and foremost.
While no one anticipates that tourism will cease in a place that offers skiing in the winter and early spring, boating from spring until late fall, swimming in the summer, hiking, camping and fishing year round and upland game bird and California mule deer hunting in season, Big Bear maintaining its primary credential as a tourist community is at stake with what in effect is an election where the incumbency of four of the city council’s five members is on the line. Under the 5,231-population city’s normal election cycle, Mayor Rick Herrick is being challenged by Omar Torres Cázares in the city’s District 2. In District 3, incumbent Councilman Randall Putz is opposed by Paul Sokoloff. In District 4, appointed incumbent Perri Melnick is facing Robert Barton and Cory Blake Miholich.
In addition, District 1 Councilman Alan Lee, who was elected in 2020 and was under the normal course of electoral rotation not due to stand for reelection until 2024, is facing a recall question. Running as alternate candidates to fill out the District 1 post in the event that a majority of those going to the polls in Big Bear District 1 favor dispensing with Lee as their representative are Jim Eakin and Kendi Segovia.
It is thus within the realm of possibility that following the November 8 election, the only member of the current council left will be Counilwoman Bynette Mote.
Rarely do such radical makeovers of a council take place, as typically, among the 21 cities or towns of San Bernardino County which are at present led by five-member councils, the most positions up for election in any given year is three. Recall elections are relatively rare. In this case, the recall of Lee corresponds with a gubernatorial year election in Big Bear when three council posts are up for selection.
In 2018, Adelanto saw four of its five council members taken out of office and replaced. That occurred when Jermaine Wright was removed in January of that year for non-attendance after his November 2017 arrest by the FBI on bribery charges and he remained in federal custody past the 60-day limit on meeting nonattendance. He was replaced by Joy Jeannette in a special election held in June 2018, and that November, Charlie Glasper did not seek reelection and Mayor Rich Kerr and Councilman John Woodard were voted out of office in an election that saw Gabriel Reyes elected mayor and Gerardo Hernandez and Stevevonna Evans elected to the council.
Also in 2018, the Upland City Council lost three of its members with that November’s election, when Councilman Gino Filippi and Councilwoman Carol Timm were voted out of office and replaced by Ricky Felix and Rudy Zuñiga, while appointed Councilman Sid Robinson opted out of running for election.
In 2020, Barstow saw three new officeholders elected to its five-member council when Mayor Julie Hackbarth-McIntyre was defeated by Paul Courtney; Barbara Rose won in the contest for that city’s District 3 council position, replacing Councilman Richard Harpole, who had resigned previously; and Marilyn Dyer Kruse ousted incumbent Councilwoman Carmen Hernandez.
In Big Bear there is more political tension there than in previous years and more than exists in most cities, despite its diminutive size.
At issue is that the city’s 1.277-mile-high oxygen-thin atmosphere is simultaneously thick with resentment that has been brought about because of the perception of many of the city’s permanent residents that they must take a backseat to the city’s temporary residents.
Big Bear Lake is, along with Lake Arrowhead, Joshua Tree, Mount Baldy and Wrightwood, one of the major magnets for tourists in San Bernardino County, those being for the most part people from the heart of the Southern California megalopolis looking to get away from the stress and rigors of civilization, if only for no more than a weekend or a few days.
While renting their properties out for a short span has proven advantageous and lucrative for some homeowners or investors with property in 6.5-square mile city limits of Big Bear Lake, the influx of temporary residents into any given locale can create nuisances for those living near such leased properties. In at least some cases, homes or cabins have been simply converted into temporary accommodations without regard to local ordinances or regulations.
Nearby residents have been put at the disadvantage of having, for a short time, neighbors they do not know and who in some cases have little or no regard for others they are not likely to ever see again.
On occasion, those guests have proven to be poor neighbors, creating disturbances, inviting dozens, scores or even hundreds of others to parties on the premises they have leased or rented, involving parking and traffic problems. Rarely but still potentially, such parties can prove to be raves, with highly intoxicated participants. Excessive noise has been an issue in some cases. Bonfires are a staple of such gatherings. In some isolated cases, those lodging at the rental properties or their guests grow aggressive or confrontational with nearby residents.
The Big Bear Lake City Council has found itself caught between on one side the full-time residents who want tough restrictions imposed on both tourists and the owners of vacation rental units and on the other side the often-absentee landlords who are making a substantial amount of money by renting their properties on a temporary basis and want nothing in place that will discourage renters from coming to Big Bear Lake.
Over the last several years, a majority of the city council has proven more responsive to the wealthier absentee landlords. The council has collectively responded to the calls for a strict ordinance by instituting what many local residents consider to be watered-down measures to create a regulatory regime that involves a modest licensing requirement and fines on cabin owners on whose properties problems manifest, with the potential for revocation of those licenses if the nuisances persist on a given property.
A contingent of city residents who did not believe that City Hall had gone far enough formed in April 2021. They lobbied for more vigorous regulation. Its members made a concerted call for a cap on vacation rentals, and they pushed the city to increase the transitory occupancy tax – i.e., the city’s bed tax or hotel tax – from 8 percent to 12 percent, based on their argument that 35 percent of the calls for service from the fire department or sheriff’s department in Big Bear Lake involve short term rental properties and/or visitors to the city. In August 2021, the Big Bear Lake City Council voted 4-to-1 against a proposed cap on vacation rental permits, with the controlling council majority members saying they wanted to give the regulations that exist an opportunity to work. If those did not achieve the desired results, they said they might then put more restrictive measures into place.
That was not good enough for the group of residents animated about the issue of vacation rentals, which on October 21, 2021 changed its name to Big Bear Lake United to Limit Short Term Rentals. Thereafter, its members embarked on an effort to bypass the city council and they set about gathering signatures on a petition to place on the November 2022 ballot an initiative calling for a limit on the number of vacation rentals in the city.
Previously, Herrick, Putz, Melnick and Councilwoman Bynette Mote appeared convinced that the resident discontent with the behavior and imposition of tourists on the locals was not of a critical dimension. The four were a bit taken aback when the Big Bear Lake United to Limit Short Term Rentals group was able to get 762 of the city’s 2,887 registered voters to endorse the petition to put the measure on this year’s ballot. According to San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters Michael Jimenez, he and his office made an analysis of 344 of those 762 signatures affixed to the petitions, determining that 295 were indeed valid. Thus, Jimenez deemed that the petitioners had met their burden of getting enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot.
That was something of a wake-up call to the council majority. Only Councilman Alan Lee last year was in support of enhanced tourist regulation. The other four members felt they had control of the levers and pulleys at City Hall, which had the authority to prevent the local citizenry from indulging its appetite for clamping down on the lucrative tourism industry.
By May of this year, it seemed that Putz and Melnick were willing to compromise on the line they had taken against strict regulations on short-term rental operations and would at least entertain the notion of joining with Lee in seeking to insulate local residents and their neighborhoods from sometimes rowdy and rude outsiders.
On May 16, the council agreed to appoint Melnick and Putz to an ad hoc committee to see if they could formulate a half-way or three-quarter-way compromise that would be satisfactory to the sponsors of the ballot measure to avoid having the issue decided in the election. It was thought that if the council agreed to institute through a vote of its members some regulations with teeth in them in the form of either a resolution or ordinance that held out the promise of actually abating nuisances at the vacation rental properties, Big Bear Lake United to Limit Short Term Rentals might agree to rescind the petition to put the measure on the ballot.
After numerous meetings, however, ones both official and unofficial, formal and informal, a workable accommodation between the two sides, the one aligned with residents and the other with the city’s entrepreneurs, has eluded those seeking it.
Thus, Big Bear Lake’s residents on November 8 will be asked to vote on Measure O, which asks “Shall a measure be adopted to amend the Big Bear Lake Municipal Code to limit the number of vacation rental licenses the city may issue to a maximum of 1,500 and limit the number of vacation contracts to 30 per year per property, excluding home-sharing arrangements, limiting duplexes, triplexes and four-plexes to one vacation rental per property, and enacting additional further limitations and regulation for vacation rentals?”
The measure’s presence on the ballot has political implication with Councilwoman Melnick, Councilman Putz and Mayor Herrick due to stand for reelection in November and Councilman Lee facing a recall question.
Lee is persona non grata with the council, which earlier this year censured him. Essentially, according to Herrick, Putz, Melnick and Mote, Lee engages in bullying and the use of intimidation tactics, threats, and belittling. He is constantly engaging in attacks on others, they say, including them and city staff, members of which he is constantly cross examining. Lee is engaged in an effort to “organize a union” of city workers, according to Putz, who was speaking for the three others, while simultaneously engaging in an effort to “enact a personal agenda, inflate [his] importance, feed [his] ego, demonstrate how great [he] think[s] [he] is, punish others who might disagree with [him], seek revenge [and] dismantle the very organization that [he was] elected to support.”
According to Putz, Lee had “threatened to bring forward citizens’ initiatives.”
It appears that Lee, in conjunction with Big Bear Lake United to Limit Short Term Rentals, has succeeded in doing just that.
That there is a cultural, political and practical divide in Big Bear Lake over bread and butter/quality of life issues is not in dispute. What is in dispute is who on either side of the divide has the greater political muscle.
Herrick, Putz, Melnick along with Mote represent the current powers that be, the establishment, the collective now in control of City Hall and the machinery of government on the top of the mountain. They are aligned with those in the city – property owners and some residents – who pretty much like things the way they are. They have established their primacy in the past, and if recent elections are any indication, they are on a trajectory to stay in control. They and their supporters were able to gather enough signatures of those residing in District 1 to place on the ballot a recall initiative against Lee. That is another indicator that they have the upper hand and sufficient reach right into the heart of where Lee is strongest to threaten him with being removed from office and thereby transformed into a political irrelevancy.
Conversely, Lee stands with the community’s dissidents, those who do not believe that everything in the city by the lake is hunky-dory. Among those, Lee has some passionate supporters, ones who point out that he alone has stood up for those who have been the victims of crimes perpetrated by nonresidents who blow into town, intoxicate themselves until they can’t see straight, beat up locals, vandalize their property and steal or damage their possessions. His allies were able to gather enough signatures to put a set of proposed regulations on the ballot that the city’s establishment has long resisted. They did this not in a single district but across the entire city, gathering roughly five times the number of signatures that were gathered by those looking to remove Lee from office.
All of this makes for what looks to be an interesting match-up. If there is enough of an animus against Lee in the First District to remove him from office, and Herrick, Putz, Melnick and their supporters can succeed in driving those people to the polls on November 8, Lee may very well be recalled. On the other hand, if the spectrum of residents who have been inconvenienced or preyed upon by callous vacationers and short-term visitors and then ignored by an insensitive City Hall is as solid in the city’s second, third and fourth districts as the juggernaut of voter intent that qualified Measure O for the ballot suggests, Herrick, Putz and Melnick might find themselves no longer in office come December.

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