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.