Joe Edmiston, often praised as the man who helped create the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area, saving its wild reaches from development, has a fan club of thousands. But he and his team at the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, or MRCA, also are in possession of a prodigious amount of hate mail — hundreds of letters from recipients of the tickets issued by the MRCA.
Angry mail from Southern California residents has piled up at the authority's headquarters, letting them know how sleazy, outrageous and stupid people find the agency, its leaders and its "stop-sign camera ticket program."
On March 15, L.A. Weekly reported that the controversial $175 tickets, issued by cameras tucked in out-of-the-way parking lots and on quiet roads in local state parks, have been sent to 70,000 stunned visitors in the past five years ("Parks Agency Money Grab").
Thousands of unsuspecting drivers fail to stop at, or slowly roll through, the seven stop signs because Edmiston's agency has placed them in oddball locations — at the exit from a small scenic overlook, for example, or midblock on a dead-end road near a trailhead. The tickets have proved to be a moneymaker for the Mountains Authority, providing up to a fat 7 percent of its annual operating revenue, and amounting to more than $2 million in some years.
Several days before the Weekly's article ran in March, and unbeknownst to the paper, Edmiston's team quietly reduced the $175-per-ticket fine to $100. Seeking to learn the date of the change and to determine whether any notice had been given to drivers, the Weekly made a California Public Records Act request — and discovered hundreds of complaints.
The letters also revealed that the Mountains Authority is aggressively peering into Southern Californians' bank accounts, demanding to know their Social Security income and insisting they divulge their personal spending. That's happening in cases where motorists have exercised their right to challenge their tickets but don't want to pay a deposit to the agency first.
The letters reveal that Edmiston, his staff and other parks employees involved in the ticketing program have created far more ill will than previously known.
One source of the anger? A $25 up-front "hearing fee," required from anyone challenging a ticket. The Mountains Authority requires that anyone declining to pay the fee fill out an "Advance Deposit Hardship Waiver."
In applying for the waiver, MRCA puts people through the wringer. The parks agency requires applicants to make personal statements; provide household income, home value, rental costs and food costs; and divulge their SSI checks, unemployment compensation and more.
Jay Beeber, who became a Southern California folk hero when he used LAPD accident data to prove that the now-abandoned Los Angeles red-light camera program was a revenue generator that did not make streets safer, says, "The first time I saw the [MRCA hardship waiver] form, I was surprised at the invasive nature of it. I don't think they have any business asking those questions!"
Adds attorney R. Allen Baylis, an outspoken critic of Edmiston and the stop-sign cameras, "I think they made it as onerous as possible so people would just pay them."
The 114 letters obtained by the Weekly catalog all kinds of anger about the camera tickets — and show that people have been forced to reveal personal, even humiliating things, in order to challenge their tickets without first coughing up the $25 deposit.
One woman wrote, "I am a 78-year-old senior living on $800 per month with no assets and work at cleaning people's houses when I can." She was deeply in debt, including $8,000 in monthly credit card payments. Her waiver was granted.
But one car owner wrote, "Daughter's boyfriend was driving. He is in college and has no money. Cannot get his parents to pay." Under the "assets" section, the writer listed his home as "underwater" with a modest household income of $4,000 monthly. He was required to pay the up-front $25.
Another driver claimed an income of $1,000 per month. "I am on unemployment and barely have enough money to feed myself and pay rent and bills," she wrote. She got her waiver. Perhaps the notation under "total expenses" — "Mom helps" — melted the hearts of the ticket collectors.
The fee is refunded if drivers win their case or, more often, applied to their bill when they lose. Drivers challenging their $100 or $175 tickets must appear before private adjudicators — hired by the Mountains Authority. And while Edmiston's staff insists the judges are independent of the authority, attorney Baylis calls the hearing "a sure loser" for motorists.
And, in fact, few motorists win. For example, of 5,357 visitors ticketed at Temescal Gateway Park, just 282 had their violations dismissed — about 6 percent. This, despite the fact that the authority's stop-sign cameras do not take photos of the driver's face, unlike other traffic cameras. (The Mountain Authority's utter lack of proof that the motorist being targeted was actually at the wheel makes up an entire category of hate mail in the letters.)
One man summed up the anger engendered by the Mountains Authority in a single, scathing paragraph:
"As you are very aware, the company that you hired to scam park visitors into pressing your visitors to pay a very large fine for a camera ticket that doesn't even show the driver is nothing more than a very bad way to collect money. ... Threatening someone's credit, mine being as perfect as possible, is another threat. ... Then to ask for money to have a hearing is another bully tactic."
In fact, as the Weekly previously reported, LAPD determined from accident records that the seven cameras are at locations with no record of reportable traffic incidents since 2005 — meaning no accidents either before or after Edmiston and the MRCA board had the cameras installed in 2007.
Park staff insists the cameras are needed to reduce vehicular threats to walkers, hikers and other pedestrians. "We feel we are saving lives and preventing injuries," senior ranger Jewel Johnson says. "Park users tell us all the time that they feel safer."
But the lack of accidents historically suggests the cameras are in place to help MRCA collect revenue, as the angry letter writer suggests.
And it is big money. From March 1 to June 30 of this year, 6,380 people — or $638,000 in potential revenue — have received automatic tickets from the seven cameras. That's a 15 percent increase over the same period in 2011, despite media coverage and warnings by other park lovers to watch out and never roll past the stop line.
Doug Dobransky, a retired cameraman and Vietnam vet who has been to Franklin Canyon Park "hundreds of times" for its peace and beauty, frequently took his terminally ill sister there.
She was dying of cancer. "She loved Andy Griffith," which was filmed nearby at Franklin Canyon Reservoir, says Dobransky, "and she loved the lake."
But in December, Dobransky says he saw the true nature of the Mountains Authority when he got a ticket — $175 for being "a foot over the line" at one of Joe Edmiston's most lucrative stop signs.
The outraged Dobransky won't go back to his beloved park — and he blames "Edmiston's sneaky and cowardly methods."
He explains to the Weekly: "I wrote a letter saying I was guilty of going over a line" at the stop sign on the road that winds along the canyon's reservoir. Then he frankly explained his financial situation to the Mountains Authority: "I'm retired, on a fixed income. It's a little steep. $175. I would appreciate a little consideration on the money."
But when he heard back, he says, the message was, "Sorry, the $175 stands." He paid it. And then he added a final message in a letter to the Mountains Authority: "Because of this ticket, I will never go back to your park."