We are in the process of doing several stories about the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC) and its satellite, the Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority (MRCA), both led by Joe Edmiston, a longtime political fixture in our community and many other local communities. The conservancy is a creature of the state legislature, and it was created so the state could quickly buy up potential park land and recreation land for the use of the public, and that it has done quite successfully over the years. The state needed someone to run the agency: someone who was smart, focused, believed in the mission to obtain land for public use and had a bit of a ruthless streak to make it all work. They found their man in Joe Edmiston and he has been at it for 40 years. What got me particularly interested was not so much the battle between the locals—in this case Malibu locals  and the conservancy over public access using private roads in Sycamore Canyon—but the way the state was litigating it, turning it into a bare knuckle brawl and doing it all with public funds. The conservancy / MRCA went on the attack against a handful of homeowners in Sycamore Canyon and sued them for violating the California Coastal Act because of a guard and a guard kiosk at the entrance to Sycamore Canyon. What makes this significant is the statute allows fines of up to $15,000 per day per person and, for people like Ken and Barbara Kearsley, both in their early 80s, they are looking at about $20 million each in potential fines, which at their age, or in fact any age, is really scary. The Conservancy / MRCA have on their legal team a deputy attorney general, a staff attorney from the MRCA and, just in case that wasn’t enough, they hired a private firm whom I’ve been told has received over $400,000 in fees so far, and the state is financing the entire attack. The homeowners, of course, have to pay their own legal tab. 

I went down to the Santa Monica court last week to listen to the motions being heard on the case. When the case was called, there were nine lawyers that stood and answered “present.” By the time they had all said “good morning, your honor, I represent so and so,” a full half hour had elapsed. I estimated at $400 per hour (and I’m probably low on the hourly rate) their respective clients had spent $10-$15,000 each if you count preparation time so far that day. It was also clear that the state was following a policy of litigating every piece of the case you can attack, which they of course have a perfect right to do. Still, it was the way the big boys like Monsanto and Dupont litigate (please no letters—I used to litigate against automobile companies). The goal is simple: beat up on the little guys and bully them down until they break. That is just what it felt like: The state acting as a bully boy, muscling citizens who really couldn’t afford it. What struck me is that the constitution says we all have a right to petition our government for redress of our grievances but that’s meaningless if the government just turns around and sues you. 

So, over the next couple of months, we’re going to look into Joe Edmiston’s operation, what they do and how they do it and, if we can, how they pay for it. We’re also going to ask people: Who supervises all of this? who says “Yes” or “No” to the money requests? Who watches over state agencies? Is it the governor, the agency secretary, the legislature or simply no one? We can use your help if any of you know the answer to any of those questions. If you have any information, email it to me at agyork@malibutimes.com

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On the school front, we are involved in another major battle. Many of you are aware we have spent several years trying to get out of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District because we wanted to form our own Malibu School District. The process of separation is complex and difficult and we’ve been under the leadership of the AMPS organization and others who have been working on it for several years. We seemed to be headed for district separation, mutually agreed on, until we got to the issue of alimony. The district would go along with separation only if it didn’t cost them any money and, although I can’t quite remember the specifics, they appeared to want alimony for something like 50 years or so. Perhaps the economics of the school district have changed—I understand they are $8 million in the red and they didn’t want to lose their cash cow, that’s us. This week, the school board is threatening to change the permit rules so the children of parents who work in the district will no longer be able to send their children to the Santa Monica-Malibu schools. I suspect there is kind of a hidden agenda in all this to try and prevent us from starting our own school district. A number of the kids in our Malibu schools on out-of-area permits are Hispanic and might be forced out of the district by the rule change. The charge will be made that we’re trying to create an all-white district. We are also getting very close on the minimum number of kids we need to have our own school. Supposedly, the magic number is 1,500 kids and, with the kids we lost because of the Woolsey Fire, and now perhaps with the permit kids also being pulled out, we may drop below the minimum. I know there are petitions flying around and a Malibu crowd is planning on attending the school board meeting: Thursday, Feb. 20, which is being held in Santa Monica at the district office at 1651 16th St. at 5:30 p.m. 

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