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A Fishy Program for California Lakes : 'Adopt a Lake' is hit by allegations of improper ties to public officials and oversight failure

February 01, 1995

The state "Adopt a Lake" program started out as a seemingly innocuous and well-intentioned effort to protect California's fish habitat and ensure the highest possible stocks for recreational anglers. But as is too often the case in government, inadequate oversight and political meddling turned what was supposed be a beneficial program into a costly and embarrassing boondoggle.

Much of the blame, according to records, can be traced to cozy relationships among Byron Kemmer of Fresno, who is an avid fisherman and a former truck driver, and a number of influential figures in government. Among these are state Sen. Jim Costa (D-Hanford); Craig Schmidt, a longtime aide to Gov. Pete Wilson, and several officials of the state Fish and Game Department. As problems mounted, Costa and Schmidt appear to have intervened on behalf of Kemmer's organization.

Kemmer was the full-time executive director of the Golden State Adopt a Lake Conservancy, which was awarded state contracts totaling more than $350,000 since 1991 and was paid $155,661.

In the end, California taxpayers had precious little to show for the expense. Of 16 state contracts let to the conservancy, it managed to finish work on only four. The rest were only partially completed or were not started.

Auditors and investigators from the state attorney general's office have begun an inquiry. Besides the issue of whether there was an appropriate distance between political officials and Kemmer, a number of areas should be probed fully.

Some of those who were competing against Kemmer's organization said they concluded there was little chance they could win contracts. And no wonder, since Kemmer had the help of a Fish and Game Department official in drawing up his proposals.

By all appearances there was also a breakdown in oversight. Why did fish and game officials violate their own department's procedures by failing to ensure that the state was getting its money's worth?

Investigators are expected to soon have answers to at least some of the important questions raised by this case. State Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) is considering public hearings aimed at understanding how the program did--and didn't--work. At this point, it seems safe to say that the management of "Adopt a Lake" had the odor of a bass that's been out of the water far, far too long.

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