Big Bear Lake Mayor Targeted For Recall

A little more than a year ago, the community of Big Bear – in particular the City of Big Bear Lake – was engaged in a recall effort against Councilman Alan Lee and a city wide referendum on vacation home rentals
That election is now more than 13 months in the past , but the issues at the heart of those two votes have not yet been resolved. Today, Big Bear Lake remains a city divided, a place where a cultural war remains in full swing between those who see the rustic mountain paradise hidden away in the northeast corner of the San Bernardino Mountains as a place to live and others who consider the county’s second smallest municipality population-wise and third smallest city geographically to be a place to ply their trade as entrepreneurs who run the community’s booming tourist industry.
With Lee having been removed from office by a majority vote of his constituents, a move is now on to remove another council member, Perri Melnick, who was recently elevated from councilwoman to mayor.
Big Bear Lake is a city divided and the division runs so deep that there appears no prospect of resolving the division. Lee sided with residents over entrepreneurs and found himself removed from office as a result. Other members of the council have sought to steer a middle course, bt they have done only marginally better. They remain in office but by trying to please both sides, they have ended up pleasing no one.
Residents in the 5,102-population , 6.42-square mile city find elements of the toruism industry that pervades what is a winter wonderaland in the winter and a boating, hiking, fishing and swimmming attraction from late spring until fall to be problematic. In addition to welcoming outsiders into the city’s hotels and motels, many landowners have converted their homes into vacation rentals, otherwise known as short-tem rentals, which they lease or ent out to people from lower San Bernardino County or Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange or San Diego counties or elsewhere on weekends or sometimes for aweek or two, getting a return for just a day or two that equals or exceeds the income typically produced for renting out a property for a mont. Occasionally the dwellings will be occupied by not just one or two people or a family but as many as dozens of skiers or fishermen or boating enthusiasts, such that already narrow streets are overparked with vehicles. Big Bear’s taverns, bars, saloons nightclubs and public houses are well-frequented establishments at nighttime, particularly on weekends, sometimes with rowdy patrons. A byproduct of a thriving local tourist industry is that one has a constant parade of new neighbors, most of whom remain forever strangers as opportunites of introduction are limited. Occasionally, those who come into the community for a short stay are less considerate of those living within shouting distance is less than is ideal, and some untoward events occur.
For years, local residents had been asking elected offiicals and City Hall to put into place some municipal regulations that would ameliorate the situation. Big Bear officials reacted by codifying some modest rules, which many residents found inadequate. When the residents asked for the rules to be intensified, only Councilman Lee indicated he was amenable to that request. The other city officials, somewhat aligned with, or otherwise wary of the tourist industry, responded by saying that they preferred to see if the rules already being employed would achieve the desired results. If, after a fair interim they did not, city officials said, they would consider revisiting the issue. . Still unsatified, local residents created a grassroots organization, one they settled upon calling Big Bear Lake United to Limit Short Term Rentals, with which they were able to get 762 of the city’s 2,887 registered voters to endorse a petition to put a measure on the November 2022 ballot, ultimately designated by the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters as Measure O. That measure asked the city’s residents whether the city should 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. Also put on the ballot was Measure P, which called for increasing the hotel tax from 8 percent to 9 percent on January 1, 2024, and then increasing it from 9 percent to 10 percent on January 1, 2025, with the revenue dedicated to general services in the city. A third issue, other than the regularly scheduled elections of two/three? of the council members, was the recall question against Lee. Lee in his advocacy of spme residents and through the natural manifestation of his personality had made himself at odds with all four of his colleagues, and a combination of the council’s political supporters as well as representatives of the tourist industry pushed the effort to qualify the recall election against him.
While the strong sentiment of the contingent of residents who lived in Big Bear who had no personal financial stake in tourist trade who had had isolated or in other cases multiple negative interactions with short-term renters initially drove the perception that Measure O would pass by a solid margin, those with a dog in the hunt when it came to tourism in Big Bear – the owners or investors in motels, hotels, restsaurnats, drinking establishments, businesses that catered to boaters, fishemenan skiers, snowboasrders and the owners of skie resorts and boast and jet-ski rental concerns and their investors and employees networked with one another to create a campasign against Measure O. The No on O campaign, which dubbed itself Residents for a Better Big Bear, was not larking about, intending to overwhelm those do-gooders who wanted to limit short-term rentasls in the city. Residents for a Better Big Bear – the forces arrayed against Measure O – collected $173,978.07 in contributions to fight it, much of it in huge increments from deep-pocketed interests. Over 98.44 percent of the money provided to Residents for a Better Big Bear – No on O Committee, consisting of the $171,278.07 of the total $173,978.07 raised, came from individuals or entities outside of Big Bear Lake.
The Committee to Expand the Middle Class, an entity sponsored by AirBnb, Inc, put up $50,153 to support No on O. The California Association of Realtors Issues Mobilization Political Action Committee donated another $49,999. The National Association of Realtors put up $49,999.99.
The money in the possession of Residents for a Better Big Bear’s No on O Committee, then used that money to buy television and radio spots, newspaper ads, mailers, andnd handbills as well as to man telephone banks to convince Big Bear’s voters that voting for Measure O was against their interest, Ultimately, when all was said and done, the outside money used to run the campaign against Measure O doomed it to failure. Measure O fell short of passing, with 832 votes or 41.39 percent in favor and 1,178 votes or 58.61 percent in opposition.
Measure P, which had no committees promoting nor fighting it, passed with 1,044 votes or 53.87 percent in favor and 894 votes or 46.13 percent opposed.
The campaign to recall Councilman Lee, which was supported by a substantial number of those who supported the campaign against Measure O, likewise prevailed. Simultaneously, incumbent council members Rick Herrick, who was then the city’s appointed mayor; Councilman Randall Putz and Councilwoman Perri Melnick, were returned to office.
With more than a year having gone by, the division over tourist-related activity within the community of Big Bear continues unabated.
As a community, Big Bear is much larger than its municipal area.
The 38.45-square mile Big Bear community is home to 17,784 residents. There is some confusion, however, particularly among outsiders, about jurisdictional issues in Big Bear, as it consists of two entities, the City of Big Bear Lake and Big Bear City. Despite its name, Big Bear City is not a municipality but rather an unincorporated county area and a designated census place. Big Bear Lake is an incorporated municipality. Despite its status as an actual city, Big Bear Lake is smaller than Big Bear City both in terms of land area and population. Big Bear Lake is 6.42 square miles and has 5,046 inhabitants. Big Bear City is an expansive 32.03 square miles with 12,738 residents. While both qualify as rustic mountain districts, the more compact Big Bear Lake is slightly more urbanized and densely populated.
In Big Bear Lake last year, four-fifths of the city council appeared have a common foe in Lee, which created an alliance between them. Since Lee’s departure and the continued acrimony between lements fo the community over short-term rentals,further fissures or divisons have developed or become apparent on the city council. Councilwoman Mote, it appears, has developed personality differences with Councilman Putz, although the feeling on that does not seem to have run as deep as was that between Lee and his estranged colleagues.
With the 2024 election approaching, the tension between the pro-tourism element of the community and residents is again in evidence. It is not clear how the two individuals up for election – Mote and Kendi Segovia, who replaced Lee upon his recall – will seek to position themselves on that issue.
In Big Bear in 2012, the City of Big Bear Lake and Big Bear City Community Services District completed the merger of their fire departments, establishing Jeff Willis, who was then the Big Bear City Fire Chief, as the newly created department’s fire chief. Willis has managed the department using the available funding the city and the district have budgeted for the department over the years, which has rankled the department firefighters, who do not consider Willis aggressive enough in demanding from the city and the district more money to operate the department. Meanwhile, city and district elected leaders – including the Big Bear Lake City Council and the Big Bear City Community Services Board of Directors – have at least subliminally recognized that the firefighters’ hostility toward Willis is redirected hostility toward them since. At the same time, some elements of the community, perhaps not sophisticated or knowledgeable to understand the dynamic between the city council and fire chief in which the fire chief is taking heat that would otherwise be directed at the them, have leveled criticism at members of the city council because they have not acceded to the demands of the firefighters and their union that they cashier Willis.
This week, after issues relating to the short-term rentals have been roiling for a year, the city council was scheduled to take up a set of proposals by Big Bear Lake City Manager Erik Sund which recontoured the short-term rental ordinance that was passed in January 2021 by reducing the terms of some of the fines. Whereas under the prior ordinance fines were $2,500, $5,000, and $7,500, including $5,000 for operating without a license or an expired license, under the new fine structure that violation is to be reduced to $1,500. With the newly adopted ordinance, the fine structure was reduced to $1,500, $2,500, and $5,000. The City also added a 60-day warning system with 5 separate notices (4 emails and a mailer to the license holder) to provide ample notice/warning for renewing their license, thus avoiding any application of the fines or related penalties unless a violation has taken place in a deliberate fashion. Additionally, the ordinance adds a second option to the so-called “check-in process.” The prior ordinance only allowed for in person check in; with the new ordinance the city council was scheduled to approve a virtual check in/registration option, in addition to the in person check in option.
In the public hearing portion of this week’s city council meeting on December 19, which came prior to the city council’s vote on the matter, which was placed on the meeting’s consent calendar, Big Bear Mountain Brewery Owner Rick Snow, who was there on behalf of a group calling itself the Big Bear Voter Coalition, served an intent to recall notice on Mayor Melnick.
There seemed to be some degree of miscommunication at multiple levels, as Snow, by his statements seemed to suggest that he and his group were displeased with the city’s efforts to intensify the penalties applied to those out of compliance with the short-term rental ordinance that was to be voted upon that night when, in actuality, the newest form of the ordinance deintensifies those penalties.
By the sense of much of his input, Snow seemed to be pro-tourism in his orientation, but the upshot of his statement implied that the council was about to raise the penalties and fines. Two speakers that followed him seemed to make the same assumption.
Upon being called to the speaker’s podium, Snow served the recall papers upon Melnick. He then said, “This city council is not listening to the voters. They’re coming to me in droves. I got 38 signatures in 72 hours and half of the town is not here. The last city council meeting was disgusting: you guys thinking you could define who a relative is after they stay at someone’s house 20 minutes. Is it a cousin? Is it a father-in-law? What right do you have to do that?”
Snow’s reference was to how short-term rentals were to be defined and what exceptions would be or should drawn in the ordinance going forward.
“You guys aren’t listening and there’s a wave coming,” Snow said. “Start listening to the voters instead of making decisions that aren’t what the voters want. You can’t justify this STR [short term rental] ordinance. Anybody that votes for it should be recalled. To give [City Manager] Erik [Sund] more authority to fine our property owners and Big Bear Lake voters is disgusting. You’ve had poor judgment. The last three or four months, it’s all because he’s fining people for being late $5,000. That’s all they asked you to do: Stop the fines. Give notifications and do electronic checking. I don’t even have one [a short-term rental property]. I have no skin in the game. This is not about bullying, Randy [Putz]. It’s about public participation. And this whole STR [short term rental ordinance] being completely revamped? Two inches and four inches of snow and all the other stuff? Nobody asked for it. Nobody. And everybody’s pissed off. They didn’t even come because they know you are just going to railroad it it in. I don’t even know why. You can make a lot of people happy by refunding the exorbitant late fees that are people who are paying their TOT [transient occupancy or hotel bed] tax that never had code enforcement infringement and you are costing them ten and twenty thousand dollars? It’s just ridiculous. Start listening to the voters.”
Snow was followed by Barbara Olson, who said, “I understood after Measure O was defeated, that we would be relooking at the ordinances to make them less restrictive, but what I’m seeing happened over the last couple of weeks is they went from a small amount of ordinance to a huge amount of pages and pages and pages, things redefined, people called something different, check-in calling, registration. How is this helping our vacation rental business? People already think that we’re not visitor friendly. It’s out there. We hate that. I think that Big Bear has always been a friendly community. We’ve always been a tourist town. I think that the people who are making up some of these ordinances don’t have an understanding about who we are in Big Bear. We are a tourist town. We’ve been a tourist town for 50 plus years. We’ve always welcomed our tourists in the past. I had a chance today to look over the changes to these ordinances. I didn’t hear the city council ask for all these changes. One person came up with all these changes. Why do we have to just bend to what the city manager wants? Why isn’t it about what us (sic) as residents, homeowners and property owners want?”
Ronald Snow said, “Perri Melnick is a very outspoken supporter of high fines and punitive enforcement to fund more government control. Melnick has no empathy for us or our needs. Melnick criticizes residents for their comments, using their personal beliefs and agenda to be dismissive instead of compassionate. Melnick complains about taking her time to prepare for and attend meetings. Melnick has been absent through all – all – fireboard meetings in 2021, neglecting her responsibilities as a vice chair and contirbuting to the safety and the budget problems. Melnick’s relationship with the preceding mayor has created distrust in their transaprency and concerns with Brown Act violations very evident last week. Melnick approves paying exorbitant consultant fees to learn about our visions in or city instead of simply just talking to us. Melnick’s defensiveness and lack of oversight of the city manager [and] the fire chief has gone on and on. With this excessive spending and dictatorial rule Melnick is not who we need in charge. Thank you for helping us to fix this before its not too late. I vote yes to recall Perri Melnick. I haven’t been here too long, but I’ve been to a few meetings here and all I hear is spend, spend and allocate funds, spend and allocate funds, form overpriced city employees to these awards you have to hand out every month. I think it’s ridiculous. All you do is spend.”

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