SM BEACH — There’s a misunderstanding between City Hall, the Surfrider Foundation and Heal the Bay as to what benefits the environment more — having lots of people drive to beach cleanups every month or having fewer cleanups in exchange for less driving.

Two weekends ago, the Surfrider Foundation had its first Santa Monica beach cleanup in over a year. In 2008, beach trash didn’t disappear from the sand. Rather, a bureaucratic roadblock deterred Surfrider from parking at beach lots and conducting cleanups.

Until the end of 2007, City Hall gave free parking permits to beach cleaning volunteers and other nonprofits. This changed in January 2008 when the City Council voted in favor of no longer allowing free parking for nonprofits such as Surfrider.

Councilman Richard Bloom said at the time of the vote that the council was “sending the message that it’s important for us to try and use alternative means of getting there; carpooling being one of them. … Sustainability is a priority.”

City Hall’s rationale was that beach cleanups are environmental events and participants shouldn’t attend by driving personal vehicles, Liz Bar-El, assistant to the city manager for management services, said.

“The council didn’t want to encourage people to drive,” Bar-El said. “Free parking encourages people to drive.”

Most environmentalists were surprised that Santa Monica, a green conscious city, changed this policy.

“Everyone sees this as a public service, usually the city is pretty thankful,” Wesley Negus, Surfrider Foundation’s West Los Angeles chapter chair, said.

The change in policy might be understandable if only Santa Monicans were attending, but people drive all the way from Pasadena to attend the cleanups, Negus said.

“They have to pay eight bucks to give up their whole Saturday,” Negus said. “They’re going to have to pay as if they were going to surf.”

Some City Hall employees think beach cleanup volunteers should receive free parking.

“It makes it difficult for people to do cleanups in the city,” Dean Kubani, director of the Office of Sustainability and the Environment, said. “I don’t necessarily agree with it.”

Under the new policy, only people attending events organized by City Hall can receive the parking waivers.

On April 19, Heal the Bay is partnering with City Hall to put on a large beach cleanup. The only two times Heal the Bay can organize beach cleanups are on Earth Day and Coastal Cleanup Day because of the parking arrangements.

“It used to be that if you were a volunteer organization everyone knew you could get parking passes,” Eveline Bravo, Heal the Bay beach programs manager, said.

Now, Heal the Bay has to apply six months in advance and pay $50 to get events approved by City Hall. This put an end to monthly beach cleanups that attracted hundreds of volunteers, Bravo said.

When the council was drafting the policy, it was important to make a concrete connection between City Hall and nonprofit groups that organize events, City Attorney Marsha Jones Moutrie said at the Jan. 22, 2008 council meeting.

“It isn’t just a favor that city staffers give out [to certain non-profits],” she said. “It’s not the lending our name to something.”

In an interview last week, McKeown said the council had to consider access, making sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to park near the beach. It was not about environmental groups having to use alternative means of transportation.

“Parking at the beach is a public resource, and the council can’t dispense free waivers to groups simply because we like them and feel they’re doing good work,” McKeown said. “We’ve had to turn down such requests from non-environmental nonprofits such as Veterans for Peace, who every Sunday donate hours setting up and tearing down Arlington West, as well.”

Heal the Bay and Surfrider educate Santa Monica residents about environmental issues, which could be considered a benefit to the community. Educating the maximum number of volunteers is harder when paid parking deters people from attending cleanups.

“In these tight economic times, charging the full rate for beach parking may draw down attendance at the beach cleanups,” Bob Bowman, a Surfrider Foundation volunteer said.

Surfrider might try to make their beach cleanups a city-sponsored event, but this adds a large burden to a small nonprofit organization, said Negus.

“It’s another hoop we have to go through that we didn’t have to before,” he said. “It creates a disincentive for us.”

Surfrider still conducts beach cleanups in other parts of Los Angeles, which offers it parking waivers. In Venice, the city lets Surfrider volunteers park for $1.

For the most recent Santa Monica beach cleanup, the Surfrider Foundation was under the impression it would get the parking waivers back. However, the permits weren’t granted because Surfrider contacted City Hall the day before the event, Bar-El said.

City Hall is looking at beach cleanups from a very strange perspective, Negus said.

“They’ve got this thing backwards,” he said. “The city desperately needs this. It’s like we’re asking a favor for us to do this for them.”

Many Surfrider and Heal the Bay volunteers are upset because Santa Monica is a self-proclaimed green city, but have stopped a lot of beach cleanups under the new instructions, Bowman said.

“If a parole-violating transient can get a city-subsidized free sack lunch at OPCC,” he said, “I see no reason why a law-abiding Heal the Bay or Surfrider volunteer can’t get a discount when they park in a city lot for a beach cleanup.”

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