Edmiston’s Executive Power Expands Despite Local Outcry

SMMC/MRCA Executive Director Joseph T. Edmiston

Though some members of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Board of Directors timidly raised limited challenges to a requested power consolidation by Executive Director Joe Edmiston during their Monday, March 28, meeting, the board eventually approved his request unanimously.

Edmiston is the longtime head the conservancy and its sister agency, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, who won a unanimous vote Monday to “modify, suspend or postpone grant guidelines, contract conditions, and other rules and regulations respecting the business affairs of the conservancy” during the course of the COVID-19 state of emergency.

That open-ended expansion of his power was derided by Malibu officials and some residents. But Edmiston’s power expansion was endorsed by the City of Malibu’s official representative to the conservancy’s advisory committee, Patt Healy.  

Board members were unsuccessful in watering down the sweeping executive power, which Edmiston said was necessary due to the COVID-19 virus. 

“Either back me up here or fire my ass,” Edmiston offered at one point.

Mayor Karen Farrer appeared via phone at the meeting, requesting some accountability.

“I respectfully request that the SMMC to consider holding a weekly meeting via teleconference to review proposed actions by the executive director before they are taken,” the mayor said. “Or, at a minimum, that the executive director be required to report publicly every such action that he has taken.”

City Council Member Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner also opposed Edmiston’s emergency power expansion. Three Malibu activists also spoke to accuse Edmiston of exploiting the COVID-19 emergency to grab “unfettered power.”

“It gives unfettered power to the executive director to really drop any rules, forget any grant restrictions, et cetera, and total power without any affirmation by the board,” E. Barry Haldeman said via phone.

Several SMMC board members questioned Edmiston about why he needed such broad powers. One board member asked Edmiston if there would be any type of decision that he could take, without asking for the formality of a vote from his board of directors. 

“Um, I guess [there] is a sliding scale; I would not take any action unilaterally that would have to be approved by the conservancy,” was the reply.

He said the COVID-19 crisis requires him to act fast: “We need to have the continuity here, and frankly, I believe that this board should vest within its official staff, within clear guidelines, the ability to deal with this crisis.”

But those “firm guidelines” were never laid out to the board members, some board members complained. They were not spelled out in the agenda that was posted on the internet, and Haldeman spoke out that the agenda was only posted late Friday night, and was changed late Sunday. 

The title of the agenda item was the only clue for the public as to the motion that was being voted on. There are also serious questions about the public notice of the meeting, which were raised by Haldeman. 

The lack of supporting material in the agenda was an apparent violation of the California Open Meeting Act. Although the governor has approved changes in that law to allow meetings over the telephone, the governor’s emergency declarations have not gone so far as to give state agencies wholesale authority to jettison public disclosure laws. 

Edmiston’s response at the meeting was “well, the City of Malibu heard about it, so obviously it was noticed properly.”

Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks questioned whether the board of directors was abdicating up its management role.

“As it reads now, where all the business affairs of the conservancy can be modified, beyond what we mean it to, I cannot support that,” Park said. “I mean, it is definitely something that we need to do … in terms of affecting the contract conditions and the grants when necessary. But it’s a different [thing], I think, when we are talking about all the business affairs of the conservancy.”

In the end, Parks said she had said what she wanted to say, and acquiesced to her colleagues in favor of giving Edmiston his requested expanded powers.

Malibu’s appointed voting member on the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Advisory Commission, Patt Healy, also voted with the unanimously endorsement the Edmiston executive action. This came minutes after the city’s mayor and a city council member stood up to oppose it.

Healy is appointed by the city council to represent the city’s interests. In casting the City of Malibu’s vote, Healy did not explain why she endorsed expanding Edmiston’s power in the face of official opposition. 

Monday’s vote was by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which was set up by the state legislature to buy and retire land in the Malibu area for public park purposes. Edmiston has also engineered the creation of a sister agency, the MRCA, which is not bound by as many state regulations and restrictions.

On Wednesday, after The Malibu Times goes to print, the board for the MRCA is scheduled to meet. On the agenda is a 20 percent pay raise for unspecified employees, including the “chief of staff” of the MRCA.

That person is not identified in the agenda. No details were available as to why the parks chief or his employees need a 20 percent pay raise because of the COVID-19 epidemic. 

After Wagner complained at Monday’s meeting that the pay raise issue had not been spelled out, Edmiston said he would pull the pay raise off the Wednesday agenda. As of late Tuesday, in the third version of the agenda, it was still there. 

An earlier version of this story appeared on KBUU News.