The Santa Monica Mountains are among Los Angeles' most beloved treasures, stretching from the Hollywood Hills to the Pacific, perfect for hiking, biking or just enjoying the view. Aside from a few modest parking fees, visiting is free.
Unless you're captured on camera edging through stop signs erected by park overseers along rustic roads, out-of-the-way parking lots and cul-de-sacs that serve trailheads and scenic outlooks.
That will be $175.
Red-light cameras have been turned off in many California cities because data showed the costly tickets didn't make streets safer. Last year, the presiding judge of Los Angeles Superior Court questioned the constitutionality of camera tickets, which rely solely on photos to prove who was driving.
Los Angeles shut down its red-light camera program in 2011, but the stop-sign camera controversy is just warming up in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Unnoticed by almost everyone when they began generating costly tickets almost five years ago, seven cameras have been planted in Temescal Gateway Park (which has two cameras), Marvin Braude Mulholland Gateway Park (known as Top of Reseda), the Top of Topanga Overlook and Upper Franklin Canyon Reservoir (which has three of them).
The cameras produce revenue for the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA). But how much can hikers and nature lovers really generate by rolling through seven stop signs in the parks? Maybe $25,000 a year? Seventy-five grand?
In fiscal year 2010, the cameras collected $2.4 million for the mountains authority.
L.A. Weekly has determined that more than 70,000 motorists in the picturesque mountains have been automatically ticketed since 2007. Despite posted signs, many drivers don't see that, 40 feet behind them, a stop-sign camera photographs their rear license plate if they don't fully halt as they leave the area.
Anticamera activist Jay Beeber describes Joe Edmiston, executive director of the mountains authority and a zealous advocate of the stop-sign cameras, as "like one of those Southern sheriffs who set up speed traps."
Motorists such as film director Liz Rizzo and producer Ted Balaker could hardly believe it when they got their tickets. Balaker, of West L.A., went on a lunchtime drive to Temescal Gateway Park in July 2010. Memories of his hot summertime walk had faded by the time he received an odd notice in the mail several weeks later.
The notice informed him that he had "failed to come to a complete stop" in his Honda CR-V at 12:06 p.m. on July 11. The ticket was issued by something called the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority and was signed weeks after his "violation" by a person he'd never set eyes on, Park Ranger K. Hughes.
Balaker says the MRCA sent him a photo and provided a link to a website "where they said they had video of my evil deed." He calls the ticket absurd.
"I was so angry, and was thinking about turning it into a documentary short — my line of work. But, as is probably the case with so many others, I was too busy with work to fight it," Balaker says.
The same thing happened to Rizzo in the very same spot. On June 25, 2011, Rizzo's 1994 Toyota Corolla was captured on camera. She received her ticket from Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. on July 14. It provided a link to a website where, once she entered her license and citation numbers, she could watch a video of her Corolla pausing but not fully stopping at a stop sign situated in a quiet parking lot near nature trails.
Rizzo fought back. "I went to my MRCA appeal and then appealed to Superior Court — which was really difficult to do." She sought help from Beeber, who "sent me the appeal form, which I could find nowhere online."
Rizzo was incredulous when, at her court appearance, employees of the MRCA packed the courtroom. "They showed up with a team," she recalls with wonder. "It was intense!"
The judge ultimately reduced Rizzo's ticket by $75, to $100.
The authority is a so-called joint-powers agency, a partnership between the widely known Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy run by Edmiston and the lesser-known Conejo Recreation and Park District and Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District. The authority installed the seven stop-sign cameras in partnership with camera operator Redflex.
Attorney Allen Baylis, who fights red-light camera tickets in Southern California, says the obstacles to fighting the unusual stop-sign tickets play to the mountains authority's strategy. Beating the agency's tickets, Baylis says, "generally costs [the motorist] more than the ticket, and that's one of the things [the MRCA] relies on: 'I'll just pay it to get it out of my hair.' "
Documents obtained by the Weekly through the California Public Records Act show that before the stop-sign cameras arrived on the scene, park rangers working for the authority wrote 315 tickets during all of 2005. Of those, 57 were for failure to stop and most of the rest were for speeding, usually in Franklin Canyon.
In 2008, the mountains authority issued 13,004 failure-to-stop violations — a jump of more than 22,700 percent, thanks to the cameras. In 2009, the number rose again as the authority, acting both as policing agency and jury by controlling the initial stop-sign violation hearing, approved 18,561 such violations.
Today, that money flows like honey to the MRCA, now surpassing $2 million annually and comprising 8 percent of its $29 million budget in 2010.
The ticketing and revenue numbers are huge, given that just seven cameras are involved. By comparison, the now-defunct L.A. city red-light cameras, which had been turned on at 32 heavily trafficked urban intersections, produced about 40,000 tickets per year.
Protecting that income has become important to authority executive director Joseph T. Edmiston. In 2010, Edmiston won a special exemption from California law so that the mountains authority — alone among local California agencies — can set its own traffic rules, hold its own initial traffic hearings and then collect the money.
Edmiston refused to discuss his agency's stop-sign cameras, which are the subject of a class-action lawsuit. But a spokeswoman, Dash Stolarz, insists that the seven cameras are crucial to keeping park roads safe.
Stolarz describes "Top of Reseda," the dead end of Reseda Boulevard in Tarzana, which leads into Marvin Braude Mulholland Gateway Park, as a "notorious speedway as people charge down the hill, ignoring the bicycles and people going by."
And the twisty road serving Franklin Canyon, she says, is used "to bypass traffic jams on Coldwater Canyon. [Drivers] say, 'Oh, there's nobody around.' The cars come whipping around and it's unbelievably dangerous. We put in speed bumps and stop signs, etc. It's extremely dangerous, and we're not going to tolerate it."
Yet the MRCA, which can afford to send a team to court to fight a single $175 ticket, cannot produce any records to back up its claims of actual danger.
In fact, the Weekly has learned, the danger is being exaggerated. Los Angeles Police Department data show no serious accidents have occurred at the seven locations for the past eight years, either pre- or postcameras.
Lt. Andy Neiman, an LAPD spokesman, after poring over data from 2005 to 2012 for streets adjacent to the seven stop-sign cameras, such as the 3500 block of Reseda Boulevard and the 3600 block of Topanga Canyon Boulevard, concludes, "We have not completed any traffic investigations at those locations, or at least if we did respond to a collision, they did not meet the criteria requiring a traffic report."
MRCA supervising ranger Jewel Johnson insists, "We're not going to wait until people get killed."
Her argument echoes one made for years by Los Angeles city officials, who agreed to turn off the city's 32 red-light cameras only after anticamera activist Beeber proved, using detailed accident data from LAPD records, that L.A. streets were no safer under red-light camera ticketing.
Johnson, a ranger since 1997, argues that the millions of dollars in ticket costs borne by local mountain visitors is justifiable because, "Unlike city streets, you can walk on our access roads (but) you can't walk down Ventura Boulevard. We want people to take their time in the park."
However, a fierce critic of the authority's ticketing program, Jack Allen, a retired Beverly Hills city attorney, says that what's really unfolding is, "They set up a joint powers authority so they can do anything they want. It's a real gimmick."
The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which was established by the California State Legislature in 1980, has been headed since then by Edmiston. While he has been praised for his stewardship in helping create recreational facilities and saving more than 60,000 acres from development, he also has been portrayed as pugnacious and high-handed, running the conservancy and the MRCA like fiefdoms.
Allen could be considered a frenemy of Edmiston's. They worked in the early 1980s to help create Franklin Canyon and Temescal Gateway parks. But Allen has for years fiercely opposed the stop-sign cameras, calling them illegal and a "rotten way to treat people." Today he sees Edmiston as a "con artist" who got around state law. In recent years, Allen says, he has "bitterly opposed" Edmiston on several issues, including the cameras.
In 2005, Los Angeles magazine called Edmiston "L.A.'s most powerful unelected official." Edmiston also is said to have acquired an Ahab-like focus on building the so-called Backbone Trail, which will stretch from Will Rogers State Historic Park in Pacific Palisades to Point Mugu in Ventura County, with Malibu Creek State Park in the middle. By 2010, 62 miles of Backbone Trail had been completed. Another three miles or so will be completed soon, says the National Park Service.
Meanwhile, government spending on parks and recreation has been slashed. To help make up the losses, the MRCA has widened its fundraising efforts. Buried on its website (mrca.ca.gov) under "Ordinance" is Section 4.2, which allows for "automated motor vehicle enforcement ... any photographic or video equipment linked to any violation-detection system that synchronizes the taking of a photograph, video or digital image with the occurrence of a violation."
The seven cameras record a detailed image of the violator's license plate, the time and location. When the citation arrives in the mail weeks later, it includes a sworn statement signed by a mountains authority officer or employee that "based on inspection of the recorded images, the subject motor vehicle was being operated in violation ..."
According to Allen, one Los Angeles– area woman got seven tickets before she realized there was a stop-sign camera pointed at the rear license plate on her car — or that she was a dangerous driver and violator. She had been taking her child to a regular activity in the park.
In 2010, Senate Bill 949, championed by the late Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach), was signed into law to stop municipalities from creating their own courts to adjudicate moving violations and then collect the revenue. But Edmiston, who has good relations with many legislators, wangled an exemption. Oropeza's law reads: "To the extent permitted by current state law, this section does not impair the current lawful authority of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority."
As a result, those who fight their ticket must attend an administrative hearing controlled by MRCA employees. Baylis calls this hearing "a loser. You have to go to a citation hearing held by an MRCA employee at the MRCA office. The results are predictable. If you lose — when you lose — then you have the right to go to [Los Angeles Superior] court."
MRCA data obtained by the Weekly show that only a small slice of motorists get out of their tickets at the hearing controlled by the authority. In 2011, 5,357 visitors to Temescal Canyon Gateway Park were ticketed by the stop-sign camera in the park's lower parking lot, for example, and 282 of those violatinos were dismissed by the agency. Of 2,813 violations issued at the tiny Top of Topanga parking lot, where a stop-sign camera snags visitors as they exit, 160 violations were rejected. At Upper Franklin Canyon Reservoir, of 1,517 drivers issued violations by the stop-sign camera on the northbound nature drive next to the dam, 85 were dismissed.
Once in Superior Court, Baylis says, drivers often challenge the fact that the cameras don't photograph the driver's face. "Can the MRCA hold the registered owner responsible for the acts of the unknown driver?" he asks.
Baylis says many park visitors ignore the ticket, and he's "never heard anybody say their credit report was damaged."
Baylis urges ticketed park visitors to take aim at the mountain authority's pocketbook by making it as costly as possible for the agency to collect the $175. "It costs them more than $175 to fight the case when they send in an attorney — often two attorneys — a ranger and a rep from the camera company," he says. "If everybody challenged or ignored the citations, those cameras would be gone in a month."
But authority spokeswoman Stolarz warns that if you don't pay, "The tickets go to a collection agency, which collects on it. I assume it affects your credit rating."
In 2008, the Pacific Palisades Community Council had doubts about Edmiston's motives for installing $175-per-violation automated stop-sign cameras in pastoral Temescal Gateway Park.
The irascible Edmiston told the grumbling neighbors: "Sue us. Maybe the court will settle this clearly. This body [the Palisades group] doesn't have adjudicatory authority. I invite people to sue us!"
He was answered on March 29, 2010, with a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of motorists Fareth Estwick, Jody Bice and Phillip Robbins Jr. by the Braun Law Group. It claims the authority's rules are inconsistent with the California Vehicle Code.
The Braun Law Group did not return calls from the Weekly, but its lawsuit argues, among other points, that it is unconstitutional to rely upon photos that do not show the driver.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Edmiston also told the Palisades neighborhood group in 2008, "It's true that this isn't done according to the Vehicle Code — and for a good reason. That is an internal road or driveway, not a state roadway. Because this isn't a public road, we're held to a different standard."
The class action has proceeded slowly. In late 2010, Superior Court judge Carl West ruled that the case by motorists Estwick, Bice and Robbins could proceed, writing, "The court is not persuaded by MRCA's position that it may, carte blanche, enforce its own ordinances where those ordinances would otherwise violate the [California Vehicle Code]."
Edmiston and the authority have delayed the case, switching law firms and getting an extension. There's been little apparent movement. At the Oct. 5 public meeting of the MRCA, a closed session was convened "to discuss the matter of Estwick vs. Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, Case No. BC434783." Four minutes later, the MRCA's board reconvened, the minutes show, and "announced that instructions were given to counsel."
Without a court decision to the contrary, the seven cameras remain turned on, annually transferring $2 million to $3 million from the pockets of 15,000 to 20,000 unsuspecting hikers and nature lovers into the coffers of the mountains authority.