I’m sure you have heard the Aesop fable of the goose and the golden egg. A farmer has a goose that lays golden eggs and to get at all the gold that must be inside of it, he kills the goose. Of course, there is no huge gold storage inside and because the farmer was not content with one golden egg a day, he now has nothing.
Well, up in the Santa Monica Mountains, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) is slaughtering hundreds of golden geese, every day. There are at least seven cameras trained on stop signs in the MRCA territory; most relevant for Santa Monica residents are the two in Temescal Canyon. And if you roll through a stop sign, or the “agent” reviewing your tape thinks you did, then you can expect a $100 ticket in the mail.
There is a great L.A. Weekly story on it, and if you want to travel down the website comment rabbit hole you could probably guess that there are a few sites devoted entirely to complaining about this practice. But I will leave those concerns alone in this, and focus on why these cameras are just bad policy, and show an arrogance unbefitting an agency like the MRCA.
First, government agencies are some of the few entities that can really think long-term because there are no shareholders clamoring for immediate profits. The whole concept of parkland is to set aside parks for use by this, and future, generations. So while the millions of dollars brought in by ticketing visitors to the MRCA might be attractive, unsustainably trapping your users is just not good business strategy. And if the goal is to “tax” tourists that do not know about these cameras (which is at least defendable), I still think that building up ill-will through video tickets is not a good way to build a support base for the MRCA, even if that base is just visitors to L.A.
Second, the cost of these cameras is not just the ill will toward the MRCA that they create. Every time a person is hit with a red-light video ticket, or any other pointless ticket, they lose a little respect for the law generally, and those that enforce it. The cost of a bad law is not just its application, it is the esteem for the law and its agents that the public loses. I guarantee you that MRCA rangers would agree with this, and did not sign up for the job to review tape and sign a declaration as to whether or not a car came to a full and complete stop.
Finally, videotaping your customers to send them tickets is just plain arrogant and wrong. That is why most municipalities (including L.A.) have stopped doing it; it does not increase public safety, it only raises money without concern to where that money comes from. If the MRCA wanted to tax helicopter rides that go through the park, or charge more for horseback rides (that leave more than footprints and take more than pictures), then I am sure that the MRCA would find great support. But to go after the people that have the audacity to pay to park in the parking lots, or drive to use the area, is just wrong.
It very may well be that the MRCA is well within its right to do this; I didn’t read the legal memo that the MRCA had written on it (mostly because I am not a masochist). And I have no problem generally with tickets given without proof of who was driving the car. I am sure there are adequate legal grounds for the MRCA to continue hitting its users with these fees.
Keep in mind with this, that I am very much that user that the MRCA counts on for support. I attended YMCA camp at Temescal as a kid, and use the MRCA trails all the time now as an adult. I am the dummy that buys a year-long parks pass. (It is worth noting that on the same fated trip that earned me a video stop sign ticket, a MRCA ranger gave me a ticket for not having a permit when one was displayed very clearly. This legal matter is ongoing.) I, and everyone else who lives in L.A. because of the great outdoor playgrounds that it offers, are exactly the people who the MRCA relies on when it comes time to raise revenue to pay for these parks.
But when I think that every stop sign is going to cost me $100, I am not as excited to go use the areas I pay for. And when that next vote for more park money comes along, maybe I think of the MRCA and decide it is not worth it. I have to imagine that every time that one of these tickets gets paid, the person just takes a note of where that camera was, or vows not to go back. Pretty soon the very people that pay for these parks are going to leave them alone. And then refuse to pay for park upkeep because of disuse.
In short, the cameras that the MRCA uses may be legal and they may raise money. But they are just dumb public policy. They better be banking that ticket income because it will not last forever, and I am worried that eventually taxpayers will tire of paying for parks that treat them like cash registers. So I call on the MRCA to get rid of these cameras now to save their public image and to ensure that taxpayers support the parks in the future. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you; you don’t kill the taxpayer geese that are laying the golden eggs.
Andrew Adams is an attorney living in Santa Monica. He loves the MRCA, and this op/ed hurts him more than it does them.