Can Ken Starr tame Malibu's rabid paparazzi?
That's what Malibu officials are hoping as they turn to the independent counsel who investigated President Clinton's involvement with White House intern Monica Lewinsky to help them craft restrictions on "pap packs" that descend on the celebrity-rich coastal town.
Malibu officials say their town has been overrun by members of the celebrity media, who camp out at the city's few shopping centers and follow celebrities down Pacific Coast Highway. In the last few years, merchants have complained about photographers blocking store entrances and staking out restaurants and Malibu's multiplex movie theater.
Brad Pitt placed a massive tarp around his beachfront mansion to foil paparazzi. Recently, dozens of photographers swarmed pop star Miley Cyrus during a trip to a Cross Creek Road shopping center, forcing bystanders aside to get their shots.
Malibu Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich said Thursday that she'd asked Starr, dean of the Pepperdine law school, to convene a group of experts in the media and legal community to help draft a city ordinance that might include "buffer zones" at certain locations as well as a possible tax on the paparazzi.
"We're coming up on another summer season. Let's hope we are not in store for another tsunami of paparazzi," Ulich said. "Maybe they will think twice before shoving a camera in your face."
Ulich said residents are particularly concerned because paparazzi are hanging out near local schools and following celebrities home after they pick up their kids.
Malibu has been an out-of-the-way playground of the rich and famous for decades. But veteran paparazzo say that only in recent years has it become a destination for the photographers.
Frank Griffin, co-owner of a Los Angeles-based photography agency, said the tipping point occurred two years ago when Britney Spears made the seaside town her home. She was famously photographed driving with her toddler on her lap on Pacific Coast Highway -- images that sparked a tabloid firestorm.
She moved to Studio City but the paparazzi never left -- in part because they discovered how many stars live there, including Pierce Brosnan, Mel Gibson and Barbra Streisand.
"They are like crows on a telegraph line, just rows and rows of them," Griffin said of the photographers. "They thought this is nice and comfy: 'I have my Starbucks, the taco stand and can even go surfing.' Who wants to sit in the Valley in 104 degrees?"
Tony Koursaris, owner of Taverna Tony off Pacific Coast Highway, has noticed the surge in photographers -- and their aggressive tactics toward celebrities.
"They come right in their face when they come in and come out," Koursaris said. "They suffocate them. They have no regard for anybody or anything. They are not even afraid of the police."
Officials are just beginning to discuss how Malibu could regulate the photographers. One idea that officials acknowledge might not be legally possible is taxing celebrity photos taken the city.
"They get thousands of dollars for these photographs," said Ulich.
Earlier this year, Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine proposed an ordinance to create "a safe zone" around celebrities or others who were subjected to swarms of photographers at residences, in the streets or facilities such as hospitals.
But the idea, which had been prompted by a virtual siege at Spears' Studio City home and pursuits during her trips to hospitals, has met with lukewarm support, including from LAPD Chief William J. Bratton, who argued that no new laws are needed to deal with the problem.
Starr was not immediately available for comment, but Los Angeles County sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said Sheriff Lee Baca agrees with Bratton that current laws were adequate. Malibu contracts with the Sheriff's Department to provide police services.
"We believe the laws on the books are sufficient to deal with anybody that violates them, whether it's driving inappropriately or reckless, obstructing movement, battery whatever it is," Whitmore said. "We would encourage anyone who is thinking of adding a new ordinance to contact the Sheriff's Department and the district attorney's office to see if such an ordinance is even feasible."
Peter Eliasberg, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said he is concerned that efforts to target the media, including the paparazzi, would infringe on 1st Amendment rights.
"I hope that Dean Starr and the committee recognize existing laws are sufficient to address the problem," Eliasberg said. "The courts allow a variety of legal remedies, both civil and criminal. To the extent that there's problems, it's an enforcement problem not a lack of laws problem."
John Brashear, who works at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Cross Creek Plaza, said there were good arguments on both sides of the debate on whether to limit paparazzi.
But he said that professionals aren't the only ones snapping pictures of the stars, noting that even locals stop and take out their cellphone cameras to capture their brush with fame.