Sportsmen's Club dispute heads to Fresno court

The Fresno BeeMarch 26, 2014 

The fight over the Fresno County Sportsmen's Club is headed to a local courtroom Thursday after both sides filed dueling lawsuits this week.

Fresno County Superior Court Judge Donald S. Black has the task of determining who's in charge: the club's longtime leader, Douglas Bowman and his board, or newly elected president, Steve Starcher and his board.

At stake is the club's 13-acre spread along the San Joaquin River near Woodward Park and the revenue produced by weddings, fundraisers and private parties.

The lawsuits, which were filed Monday in Superior Court, come in the wake of periodic clashes that resulted in the Fresno Police Department being called to quell disturbances on the club's property on North Lanes Road in the past week.

According to Starcher, club members met March 18 at Valley Oak Elementary School in northeast Fresno and ousted Bowman and his board. "Bowman is ruining the club by illegally expelling members and rewriting bylaws that disenfranchise the membership," Starcher said Tuesday.

But Bowman said Starcher was expelled from the club and had no legal authority to call for a vote on the leadership.

"We're not going anywhere," Bowman said Tuesday. "It was an illegal vote."

The club was founded in 1916, making it one of the oldest such groups in the state.

Bowman's side says the Sportsmen's Club, which is dedicated to land conservation, preservation of wildlife and outdoor recreation, has 396 members. But Starcher said that number is much lower because many longtime members have become frustrated with Bowman.

"He runs the club like a dictatorship," Starcher said.

Starcher said more than 200 members called for the March 18 meeting and 79 showed up to vote out Bowman and his board members and make Starcher the new president with a new board.

Members at the meeting also voted to re-instate four members -- Starcher was one of them -- who were expelled from the club.

Since the vote, tension has increased, both sides said.

On March 20, police had to vacate the club's property after Bowman allegedly said, "There would have been bloodshed tonight if the cops hadn't showed up," according to a lawsuit filed by Starcher's side. Police returned to the property at least two other times to quell disturbances involving Bowman, the lawsuit says.

But in court papers, Bowman's side says Starcher and his board "are engaged in unlawful activity, including illegal and harassing conduct" toward Bowman and his board. The fight has turned into threats of violence and name-calling, their lawsuit says.

"They are told to resign or they would be sorry," the lawsuit says.

Starcher also has sent letters to members, falsely telling them that Bowman and his board are no longer in charge, the lawsuit says. Starcher's group also wants the club's records, but Bowman said Tuesday that he's not handing them over.

Starcher said he and his board want to take control of the club legally.

In court papers, Starcher's side accuses Bowman and his supporters of mismanaging the club's money and retaliating against club members who speak out.

Though Bowman said he froze the club's bank account, Starcher said Tuesday that he and his board have control of it. He also has filed paperwork with the California Secretary of State that shows they are the rightful leaders, Starcher said.

"Bowman and his board have not acted in the best interest of the club," Starcher said. "We want to do it peacefully, but they won't listen to us, so we are forced to go to court."

Fresno attorney Elizabeth A. Mello, who is representing Bowman's side, said Starcher has motive behind his takeover plans; he runs a business that includes kayak tours and events on the San Joaquin River. Mello said she has talked to people who have experienced Starcher's "cavalier and hostile attempts to take organizations in directions which did not support the organizations' purposes."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, plopez@fresnobee.com or @beecourts on Twitter.

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