Government for the people

I spent the better part of last week sitting through meetings where citizens were interacting with their government. Actually, interacting is not really the appropriate word. It was more like the government was acting and the citizens were reacting in horror and fear as a government seemed to be trying to bowl them over.

The first was the California Coastal Commission meeting in Santa Monica, where the commission was tackling the issue of the Streisand Center. Just what was it going to let the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy do with that cluster of buildings, located deep in the rear of Ramirez Canyon and accessible only via a private road through a very small, narrow, wooded canyon?

Originally, when it was donated, it was to be used as an environmental think tank for contemplative examination of environmental issues by environmental scholars.

As often happens with these large donated properties, it turned out to be a big white elephant, expensive to maintain, requiring a large staff and generating enormous water bills.

The conservancy decided to solve this financial problem by turning the place into a commercial event facility for weddings, bar mitzvahs, movie shoots and conferences. The canyon residents and the city went ballistic.

After much pushing and prodding, the Coastal Commission finally got the conservancy to file for a coastal permit. In the fall, the Coastal Commission staff, after reviewing the proposal, recommended it be denied. The conservancy said, “OK, we’ll try again,” and pulled the application back to modify it. A short time later, the conservancy returned, not with a revised project that was smaller and more environmentally sensitive than everyone had expected but with a substantially larger project. This time, the Coastal Commission staff looked it over and essentially said, “It looks fine to us,” and we more cynical observers immediately suspected the fix was in. There is no question in my mind if a private party had come in with anywhere near this kind of proposal to put in a commercial facility, the Coastal Commission staff would have just laughed at them.

Because of all the opposition and a parade of witnesses — hell, even Streisand told them to take her name off the center — the Coastal Commission did what bureaucracies do with a hot potato. They stalled the decision until a later date.

Make no mistake about it. This conservancy application is a show of pure political power. Joe Edmiston, executive director of the conservancy and a major environmental player in Southern California, is out to get what he wants and to show he has the muscle to make it happen.

My view is this is such a profoundly inappropriate use for that land, it’s not even a close call. The Coastal Commission ought to turn this down cold and send it back to the drawing board because if they don’t, it will be a pretty clear indication the Coastal Commission “talks the talk” but when up against somebody with some clout it doesn’t have the nerve to “walk the walk.” I hope I’m wrong, but it still feels like this deal is wired for the Coastal Commission to cave in.

On the local scene, there is another conflict brewing between government and the local citizens. This time, the government is the city of Malibu, which is flexing its muscles. The citizens, many from Point Dume and Malibu Park, are rapidly organizing to fight what they see as a very frightening local development. It’s called “code enforcement,” the process by which the government sees we obey the laws they pass.

We’ve got a new code enforcement officer, Gail Sumpter, and a number of citizens are very unhappy with her for what they feel is a very heavy-handed code enforcement philosophy. In all fairness to Sumpter, she didn’t make the rules, she inherited them when she got the job, but she unfortunately is the person on the firing line trying to enforce some very unpopular restrictions put on by our council. For example, there are unpermitted structure like barns and guest houses all over Point Dume and Malibu Park. Many have been there for years if not decades. We were told over and over again by a succession of political candidates and council members not to worry about the new zoning because we were “grandfathered in.” It turns out “grandfathering” is something quite different than we thought it was. You are grandfathered if what’s there was permissible at the time it was built, which means the current owner has to know when it was built and what the county codes were at the time and be able to prove it. It takes money to prove it. And if it turns out the owner is wrong, our council in its infinite wisdom has turned all these building violations into criminal offenses (meaning fines and jail types of criminal offenses). The message I took away from that meeting is people are scared.

I wish I could reassure you and say I had talked to Gail Sumpter, and she had been able to reassure me the enforcement was fair and even handed and the horror stories I heard were just that, horror stories. I did call her, and I did try to talk to her, but the problem is she’s not allowed to talk to me because of the city’s “employee no speak” policy, which says any communication with the press has to go through the department head or city manager.

This matter is going to the council Monday, when a group of citizens will be there to plead its case. If you have a problem with the “code enforcement” people, or have heard from the city prosecutor, or think you might be next, I suggest you show up at the council meeting and have your say during public comment. It’s time they stopped running us and we started running them. And if you don’t like what they have to say, remember it when you go to the ballot box in April.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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