On page A1 this week we published the last of our articles, for now, about the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC) and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA). I had hoped, with the help of a number of  talented Pepperdine journalism students, to take a deep dive into both organizations, their finances, their practices and examine their openness and transparency, or lack thereof. I wish I could say that we succeeded, but the reality is that, despite their hard work, we haven’t much more than scratched the surface and, although much data is available on the internet, figuring out what it means is an entirely different thing. 

To begin with, the two separate organizations are really just one, and although each has its own board of directors and its own budget, the reality is that Joe Edmiston (whom hereafter I’ll call just plain “Joe”), who is the executive director for both, calls or approves all of the shots and expenditures, as he has been doing for the last 40 years, and Joe is very skilled at the political game. Joe’s idol is famous Robert Moses who frequently, against great odds, built the New York metropolitan area, the bridges, the tunnels, the parks, the interstate authorities and left an indelible imprint on the city. But Moses, just like Joe, was often heavy handed, inflexible and a bit of a bully boy, which was why when Moses insisted, unthinkably, that the Brooklyn Dodgers move their stadium to Queens, the citizens rose up in revolt and the then-Brooklyn Dodgers are now the Los Angeles Dodgers, for which we are eternally grateful.

The purpose of any board of directors is to set policy and oversee the executive director, but in the case of Joe, the tail is wagging the dog. The reason is simple. Joe controls a great deal of money, millions of dollars, in fact. Every time we all walk into a voting booth and vote for one of these environmental, save the planet, clean water bonds or propositions, a large amount of money typically goes into Joe’s piggy bank to spend as he wills, with almost no oversight. Theoretically, there are all sorts of checks and balances but they really don’t mean anything and Joe pretty much does what he wants without interference.

We decided to try and follow the money. There have been a number of propositions and bond issues over the years, amounting to millions and millions, and we looked at them and didn’t make much of a dent. In order to really know if money is improperly spent, you need lawyers and accountants to analyze both the bonds and propositions, identify the limitations and then do a financial audit of the agency to see how the money moves, and to whom. Some years ago, the state auditor did an analysis, the department of finance did a report on Joe’s agency, and there were all sorts of discrepancies. Joe promised to clean up his act somewhat, and then he just waited them out and business went on as usual. The reality is that California is a one-party state; the Republicans are largely irrelevant, so the normal give and take of political campaigns, which should have people looking over their shoulders, simply doesn’t exist. 

The major policy fights are internal within the Democratic Party, sometimes between party leaders, sometimes battles between agencies, or often battles between the governor and the legislature. This is a very green state, with a very strong green lobby, and Joe supports and funds a lot of them, so they just go along with what he wants.

We’ve discovered a number of incidents that seem to happen without anyone looking.

The MRCA is still giving traffic tickets on their land for not coming to a full stop at intersections on empty country lanes using photo cameras long after most everyone else has stopped using automatic photo cameras.

In the Sycamore Canyon legal battle with the local residents, he has two lawyers on state payroll and one private counsel paid for by SMMC/MRCA to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars. Joe doesn’t have to win. All he has to do is keep the lawsuit going and thus grind the local homeowners into the ground with their legal fees.

He’s still buying up lots in some of the Malibu canyons and insisting that gives him the right to invite in the entire public, without paying for the private roads. In effect, he’s turning private property into public lands but without paying for it.

He wants people with land adjacent to MRCA land to do brush clearance on MRCA property without cost to the MRCA, to help curb fires. Meanwhile, he does little to clear SMMC/MRCA land of fire hazards, putting us all at risk.

He’s expanded the reach of the SMMC/MRCA into urban parks and waterways and, in the process, uses them as bargaining chips with legislators. In effect, he’s become his own California Department of Parks and Recreation but without the supervision by anyone. 

If you can hear the frustration in my voice, it’s because there doesn’t seem to be any institutional control over many of the government institutions that we’ve created, like the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy or the California Coastal Commission, and they often drift into excess because there are no brakes.

There is a solution to some of this. The legislature needs to create an inspector general or maybe a series of inspectors general because we don’t seem to have any. Recently, President Donald Trump—whom, as you all know, is not one of my favorite people—starting cleaning house on the existing federal inspectors general like the ones in defense and state, as an example. A hue and cry went up that he was trying to cover up and avoid transparency. The reality is that no political executive wants anyone independently looking over his shoulder, whether they are on the right or the left. In California, it’s the left that doesn’t want anyone watching too closely; after all, we’re all in favor of the environment, aren’t we? So, if Joe beats up on some people to achieve a good environment and a few more parks, maybe that’s the price we have to pay. Maybe they believe it. I sure don’t.

(3) comments

Jonny Kaye

Clearly this article from the publisher is opinion, which some people clearly don’t understand the meaning of.

STEPHANIE DALL

As a long-time student and supporter of California's coastal program, I am also a long-time admirer of Joe Edmiston's skills and tenacity in pursuit of coastal program goals. Still, it's good to recall that advice to Henry VIII : just because you CAN engage in certain acts doesn't mean you Should (and this applies to all government entities and officials). Merely because something is legal doesn't make it sound policy, or morally justified -- or vice versa.

David Noneya

I have to ask: Are you purposely being misleading and misrepresenting the facts, or are you just THAT bad at your job? Considering that one of your paper's rule for discussion is to "Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything", I'm inclined to believe it's the latter, but you are making it REALLY hard for us to 100% buy into that.

I have read every one of your "Investigative Reports" about the SMMC & MRCA, and the big takeaway is clearly: "WE HATE THEM, BUT WE GOT A WHOLE LOT OF NOTHING." Your recent reports acknowledge that everything the SMMC and MRCA are doing is perfectly legal and within their authority to do, yet instead of acknowledging it and leaving it at that (like a reputable journalist would do), you instead revert to criticisms that are simply not supported by anything factual, and in some instances are just straight up lies. Let"s go over a few:

- You complain that the MRCA is still giving out their stop sign tickets, implying that they are somehow wrong for doing so. As someone who has received one of these tickets and begrudgingly paid, I CANNOT BELIEVE you are making me defend it, but the simple fact is this: They are within their legal rights to do so. Unlike you, I did my research and discovered that this has in fact been challenged in the courts, and surprise, the MRCA prevailed. So other than you (and the rest of NIMBY's in Malibu) hating them, what's the problem here?

- You next go on to complain about the Sycamore Canyon legal battle, and seem to just make things up out of thin air to make your point. Again, I read your reports on this and read the legal filings from the parties involved in this (you know, to have the actual facts), and from what I can gather, you are either purposely lying, or relying on information from people who are purposely lying to you. Let's break this down:

1) " ... Joe doesn’t have to win. All he has to do is keep the lawsuit going and thus grind the local homeowners into the ground with their legal fees."

What you conveniently failed to mention is that the Sycamore Canyon legal battle WAS INITIATED BY THE HOMEOWNERS. THEY SUED FIRST. Without getting to merits of the legal battle (which you also greatly misrepresent - more on that below), the fact that you make it seem like the MRCA is somehow bullying these people is bordering on journalistic malfeasance.

The homeowners sued first, then the MRCA filed a countersuit claiming that the homeowners were infringing on the MRCA's property rights, and violating the Coastal Act in doing so. From what I can gather, they initially asked for damages related to their claims, but then took those out and now are only asking for any fines the homeowners may be subject to if they are found to have violated the Coastal Act. So I ask you: How exactly is the MRCA bullying these people in this situation? I know Malibu residents are used to being able to simply outspend the people they sue and get their way in the end, but the MRCA having the means to fight back does not mean that they are the bullies here. Your point is absurd.

2) "He’s still buying up lots in some of the Malibu canyons and insisting that gives him the right to invite in the entire public, without paying for the private roads. In effect, he’s turning private property into public lands but without paying for it."

This is really where you jump the shark from simply perhaps being incorrect to straight out lying and making things up. It really is egregious, so let's break it down:

You clearly are again speaking about the Sycamore Canyon legal battle. I'm no lawyer, but here is what I can gather the issues are (again, from actually reading the court filings) - MRCA legally purchased a property in Sycamore Canyon, with public funds, making it public property. The only way to access the property is via a "private road," which every property owner in Sycamore Canyon (including the MRCA) owns an access easement over. The MRCA is asserting that they have the right to utilize the easement to the same extent as all the other property owners, which includes to ability to invite people to visit. The other homeowners claim the MRCA does not have that right, and set up a guard station with a guard to prevent them from doing so, and have actually physically stopped the infamous "Joe," the MRCA Executive Director, from accessing the property. The MRCA's countesuit claims that this is a violation of their property rights, and potentially a violation of the Coastal Act.

That's it. On it's face the MRCA's claims seem meritorious - Why should they're property rights and interest be any less than any of the other property owners there? If the other owners are allowed to do and invite who they want, then the MRCA should be allowed to do the same.

BUT THERE IS NO MENTION of the MRCA refusing to pay to maintain the private road. There are simply no facts that you've reported or in the legal filings to support this assertion. So you (or someone you've spoken to) literally just made that up. I'm assuming this is something one of the homeowners said to either you or one of your "reporters", which on it's face should present a credibility issue. Rather than simply take their word for it and run with it in print, here are some follow up questions an actual journalist would have asked:

- - Where is the proof that the MRCA is refusing to pay for private road, or to maintain it?

-- Who maintains the road? Is there an HOA that does so? Or a road maintenance association? If so, has the MRCA offered to join and pay their share? If they have, why haven't they been allowed to do so? If they haven't, have the homeowners demanded that they do so, and the MRCA refused?

Answers to these questions would be helpful to support your claim that they are not paying for the road. But rather than taking those steps, you instead choose to parrot a false claim that I can only assume came from someone with incentive to push the false claim. I don't fault that person for doing so (it is in their self-interest to do so, after all) but I do fault YOU AND YOUR NEWSPAPER for doing so, and you're supposed to have higher standards than that..

I'm not usually one to comment on articles such as these or the ones your paper has been posting, but this is just so egregious that I felt compelled to do so. So on top of everything else, I'm also upset that you've made me spend a portion of my day responding to your irresponsible journalism

Do better.

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