There's dissension among members of the Fresno County Sportsmen's Club, one of the oldest sporting and conservation groups in California.
Just last month, dozens of club members -- and some people recently kicked out of the club -- gathered at a Fresno school to chart a new direction. Next week, they hope to cement a takeover and oust current president Douglas Bowman and his board.
"Bowman and cronyism on the board has ruined the club," said Steve Starcher, 61, of Fresno, who was elected president of the new group called Save the Club. "It's time to restore the club's mission."
At stake is control of the club's 13-acre spread along the San Joaquin River near Woodward Park and the revenue generated from weddings, private parties and fundraisers. Among groups that have benefitted from using the grounds are the Boy Scouts and other nonprofits.
Starcher contends Bowman and the board have violated state law by not allowing the entire membership to vote for club officers and board members. Members who speak out and disagree with Bowman are banished, said Starcher, who was kicked out of the club before last month's meeting.
To get the word out, Starcher has created a website called www.savetheclub.com.
Bowman, 67, bristles at the accusations, saying Starcher and the members who support him are a rogue group.
"His hostile takeover will not amount to anything," Bowman said. "They're not the club. Nothing they're doing is legal."
Founded in 1916, the Sportsmen's Club is dedicated to the conservation of natural resources and the promotion of outdoor recreation.
For $60 a year, members get access to the club's sprawling grounds, including boat ramps, fishing ponds and camping spots, as well as the two-story, Tamarack-pine clubhouse, which members built with their own hands in the 1980s after the original clubhouse was destroyed by fire.
The 7,000-square-foot clubhouse, which includes a bar, kitchen, meeting room and balcony, is one of the largest log buildings in the Valley.
Bowman, a retired wildlife habit supervisor for the state Department of Fish and Game who lives in Madera Ranchos, estimated 350 to 375 members pay dues each year.
He said Starcher is causing him and his board financial headaches: "It's just a mess, so we've gotten an attorney" to help fight the takeover attempt.
According to Starcher, the rift is over the way club leaders are handling a wrongful termination lawsuit filed in Fresno County Superior Court in January by the club's former caretaker, Patrick Manzula. In court papers, Manzula's attorney, Brian Whelan, accuses the club of wage theft. After Manzula complained, the board fired him, Whelan says.
Bowman said Manzula wants $99,000 to settle the lawsuit and "we don't have $99,000. It's a pipe dream."
Starcher said Bowman's handling of the lawsuit puts the club at risk of having to sell its riverfront property if it comes out on the wrong end of the lawsuit.
"Bowman and the board should quit before it gets worse," Starcher said.
But Bowman said neither he nor the board are thinking of giving in.
"It's just pie in the sky," he said.
Starcher said plans for taking over the club gained momentum at a Feb. 27 meeting at Mountain View Elementary School in northeast Fresno. He said 75 club members voted then to remove Bowman and his board, elect new officers and adopt new bylaws. (Bowman said he believes there were about three dozen club members present.) Because current bylaws say one-third of the membership is required to make changes, Starcher said, another meeting will be held Tuesday at another northeast Fresno school with the hope of attracting enough members to make the changes binding.
The California Secretary of State says the Sportsmen's Club is registered as a mutual benefit corporation -- created to promote and benefit the social or economic welfare of individual members.
Starcher alleges Bowman and his board broke the law when the club adopted new bylaws that deny members the right to vote and elect directors. The new bylaws state: "A majority vote by the directors is necessary for the member to become a director." Starcher pointed out that previous bylaws said: "At all elections for directors, each member shall vote for as many persons as there are directors to be elected."
Bowman and board director Jeff Halstead, who is on the club's bylaw committee, said the bylaws are legal and were changed to prevent people like Starcher, who was a member only four years before he was expelled, from taking over the club.
Any member in good standing can still be nominated for director, Bowman and Halstead said. Nominees must be a member for at least six months, have attended at least five monthly meetings, and have their dues paid for the year, they said.
Halstead, who said he's been a club member for at least 20 years and has served two terms as club president, described the fight as "weird" because Starcher was once nominated to become a director, but he declined.
About the renegade group, Halstead said, "They have their right to freedom of speech and they can do what they want. But it doesn't mean their meetings are real."
Starcher confirmed he declined the director's nomination. "I saw what they were doing and I didn't want any part of it."
Ken Roberts, who has been a member since 1964, said he supports Starcher.
There used to be 60 to 70 people showing up for club meetings, Roberts said. Now, maybe 15 to 20 show up, he said.
Under Bowman's leadership, members are kept in the dark, he said, because minutes of the meetings and treasury reports are no longer given to the general membership.
"Bowman has really screwed things up," said Roberts, 79, of Clovis.
But Bowman said he is trying to save the club from people who take advantage of it.
In June 2012, the club sued longtime members Susan Turner and her mother, Alice Mulford, accusing them in Fresno County Superior Court of stealing money. The lawsuit accused Turner, the club's rental manager, and her mother, the treasurer, of embezzling about $16,000 from January 2007 to June 2012, when the board expelled them from the club.
In a countersuit, Turner accused Bowman of sexually harassing a female member in May 2010. At the time, Turner and her mother were on the board of directors, and the board voted to kick Bowman out of the club because of the sexual harassment allegation, but the motion failed by two votes, court records show.
In response, Bowman moved to expel not only Turner and her mother, but also the alleged victim, the counter suit says.
"He's vindictive," Turner said in a recent interview. "If you cross him, watch out."
Bowman said the sexual harassment allegations were false and the lawsuit against Turner and her mother was settled in the club's favor. Turner, whose mother died in October 2012, agreed to pay the club about $14,420, Bowman said. (So far, Turner, has paid the club $10,000, Bowman said.)
Turner, who was once president of the club, denied stealing the club's money, and said she settled the suit because she had run out of money to defend herself in court.
Bowman and Halstead said Starcher's takeover attempts have confused members.
"It's all smoke and mirrors," Bowman said. "They can't do it."
Bowman also said Starcher has motive behind his takeover plans; he runs a business that includes kayak tours and events on the San Joaquin River. "He wants the club for his personal benefit," Bowman said.
Starcher said his intentions are true -- he wants the club's membership to decide what's best for the club, and he'd be happy to step aside in favor of another person as president if the takeover is successful.
If you go
What: Save the Club meeting
When: Tuesday, 6 p.m.
Where: Valley Oak Elementary School, 465 E. Champlain Drive, Fresno
Details: Steve Starcher at (559) 289-8874 or email@example.com
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, firstname.lastname@example.org or @beecourts on Twitter. Staff Writer Marek Warszawski contributed to this report.