Lawsuit filed against conservancy


Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Executive Director Joe Edmiston says the suit, over use of bond money, is an attempt at intimidation. He says this will not interfere with the process to enhance three local parks.

By Jonathan Friedman / Assistant Editor

With the state attorney general refusing their request to pursue a legal process against the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a group headed by a Thousand Oaks anti-tax activist has filed a lawsuit against the conservancy, claiming it illegally used bond money to fund its proposed project to enhance three Malibu parks and the legal battles associated with it.

The lawsuit, which was filed Monday in a Ventura County Superior Court, claims the conservancy violated state law this year by granting $385,000 of its $20 million of voter-approved Proposition 50 bond money to its sister organization, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, for the parks enhancement project. Also included in the grant was money designated to cover litigation costs involved with the parks project. The plaintiffs, led by Thousand Oaks resident Jere Robings, say that bond money can only be granted to certain kinds of entities, and the MRCA does not qualify. They also say that money cannot be used for litigation.

“We must hold state agencies like the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy accountable for millions of taxpayers’ dollars they receive through state bond funds,” Robings said in a press release. “We cannot let the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, or any other agency, violate the law. And this lawsuit demonstrates that we will go to court to get the taxpayers’ money back.

The other plaintiffs identified in the lawsuit are Malibu residents Rick Mullen and Ken Nilsen, the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers’ Association and the Ramirez Canyon Preservation Fund. The Preservation Fund, which represents Ramirez Canyon property owners, has been in several legal battles with the conservancy since it acquired its Ramirez Canyon property through a donation from Barbra Streisand in 1993.

The Preservation Fund has accused the conservancy’s parks enhancement project-which is proposed for park lands in Ramirez Canyon, Corral Canyon and Escondido Canyon-to be an end-run around Malibu city law, because it only needs approval from the California Coastal Commission and not the City Council. Additionally, a lawsuit that was supposed to have a court hearing this week but was delayed until Dec. 4, has the Preservation Fund claiming the conservancy cannot have its offices on the Streisand property because it is zoned for open space.

“I love the fact that they file all these lawsuits against us, and then they file another one saying we can’t pay our attorneys,” SMMC Executive Director Joe Edmiston said in an interview on Tuesday.

Edmiston said he would never say he is confident about winning a lawsuit because of “the vagaries of the court system,” but he did point to the backing of the attorney general as evidence the state agency he heads has been doing everything by the book. The group suing the conservancy had originally asked the attorney general to pursue the matter. But a deputy attorney general writing on behalf of Attorney General Bill Lockyer, responded in a letter that “the [Proposition 50] grant is within the purview of the conservancy and that there is no basis for the attorney general to file an action against either agency [the other being the MRCA].”

Allison Burns, a Newport Beach attorney who represents the group suing the conservancy, said she is not concerned the attorney general’s position supporting the conservancy harms her clients’ case.

“The Attorney General’s Office is the conservancy’s attorney and they, of course, advocate on behalf of their client,” Burns said this week. “And we have a different interpretation of the law.”

Meanwhile, Edmiston, who said this lawsuit was an attempt to intimidate the conservancy, said he has no plans to slow down the permitting process for his parks enhancement plan, which is officially named the Malibu Parks Public Access Enhancement Plan-Public Works Plan. The project includes the creation of trails and overnight camping grounds in the three parks. It has been criticized on various grounds by Malibu officials, a state organization of municipality governments and residents living near the parks. But the main outcry has been that the city of Malibu has no say in the project. Edmiston has said the opposition is simply opposed to public access, and said last month that he does not want to go through the city because he believed the city would never approve the project. He talked about that further on Tuesday.

“More people visit Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy parks than elect the entire [Malibu] City Council,” Edmiston said. “And it is just not fair to have a [City Council] that represents a small group of people to determine the fate of public land acquired by the state for everybody to use.”

The SMMC board held a meeting at Webster Elementary School in Malibu on Monday, with the parks enhancement plan on the agenda. A collection of Ramirez Canyon property owners and their attorney, Steve Amerikaner, spoke at the meeting in opposition to the plan. But a majority of the speakers were in favor of the plan. Most of them, however, were not Malibu residents.

A final proposal for the project has not yet been drafted. Edmiston said that document would be ready for public review on the conservancy’s Web site by Nov. 10. A subcommittee of the SMMC board will then review the document. Later in the month, the entire conservancy board will hold a public hearing, at which time it would vote on the document. Edmiston said on Monday that he did not know if that hearing would take place in Malibu because there was no facility large enough in the city where a meeting could continue into the late hours.