Judge will rule Friday on Fresno Sportsmen's Club financial control

The Fresno BeeMarch 27, 2014 

sportsman

The Sportsmen's Club on March 8, 2014.

MARK CROSSE — THE FRESNO BEE Buy Photo

A judge will rule Friday on the thorny issue of who should have control of the finances of the Fresno County Sportsmen's Club -- longtime leader Douglas Bowman and his board, or newly elected president Steve Starcher and his board.

After hearing legal arguments Thursday, Fresno County Superior Court Judge Donald S. Black said he needed to think about it overnight before making a ruling.

Butthe bigger question of just who should be in charge of the club will take longer to decide, the judge indicated.

At stake is the operation of 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 club was founded in 1916, making it one of the oldest such groups in the state.

Black was tabbed to settle the dispute after the two factions filed dueling lawsuits Monday.

Starcher's attorneys, Ian Wieland and Howard Sagaser, threw the first blow by asking Black to issue an temporary order that gives Starcher and his board access to the club's grounds without threats of violence and to the club's membership list, events schedule and bank account.

Bowman's lawyers, Tina Barberi and Elizabeth Mello, didn't attend the hearing. Instead, Fresno attorney Lenden F. Webb made a special appearance for them.

Webb told the judge he hadn't read all declarations or filed an opposition, but he laid out Bowman's complaint, arguing that Starcher was expelled from the club and therefore did not have the authority to call a special meeting on March 18. At that meeting, members voted to oust Bowman and his board and installed Starcher and his board as the club's new leaders.

Because only 79 members showed up to vote, Webb said, Starcher and his followers didn't have a legal quorum to change the leadership.

But Wieland said it's unclear how many members are in the Sportsmen's Club. Bowman said in court papers there are 396, but Starcher says the number is much lower. Wieland also told the judge Starcher's group met the quorum requirement to call a special meeting, because more than 200 people had approved holding the March 18 meeting.

Since the election, Wieland told the judge that there have been periodic clashes in which Bowman has threatened violence against Starcher and his followers. The threats are real, Wieland said, because Bowman wears a gun on his hip and carries a firearm in his vehicle, and the Fresno Police Department has been called to quell several disturbances on the club's property on North Lanes Road in the past week.

In addition, since Bowman's side didn't file in opposition of Starcher's suit, Wieland and Sagaser said it's undisputed that Bowman runs the club like a dictatorship, expelling members who speak out against him. He also has engaged in mismanagement, allowed embezzlement of the club's funds and sexually harassed a female club member, Wieland told the judge.

When Webb objected, the judge said: "Have you not read the declarations (submitted by Starcher's side)?"

After Webb said no, Black said: "There's evidence that your clients have breached the peace."

Starcher has filed paperwork with the California Secretary of State to take over the club, court papers show. Starcher also has drained the club's bank account, Webb said. But Starcher said he put the club's money -- about $78,000 -- in a trust account until the dispute is settled.

Wieland told Black that the dispute isn't over power. Club members are upset because Bowman and his board changed the bylaws in March 2012 so members would no longer have the right to vote for their leaders. Instead, the bylaws keep Bowman and his board in power, he said.

To show his clients are sincere, Wieland said, they would stipulate to an election held by independent party so the entire membership can decide who should be the club's leaders.

Black, however, said he did not have enough information to make a ruling on who should be in charge.

Until the dispute is resolved, both sides agreed Thursday that the club's money can only be spent on daily business operations.

They also agreed that club members will not be permitted to destroy club property or take it; mismanage funds; make threats against each other; or bring firearms onto the property.

Friday, they may learn who will have access to the club records and the bank account.

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

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