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Parks agency's traffic cameras anger motorists

Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority installed cameras four years ago in the Santa Monica Mountains. Some recipients of the $175 stop-sign citations say they're for revenue, not safety.

August 21, 2011|By Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times
  • Todd Andrews is reflected in a traffic enforcement camera near a stop sign in Franklin Canyon Park. He received a $175 citation that was later dismissed, but only after an appeal process he called "a kangaroo court."
Todd Andrews is reflected in a traffic enforcement camera near a stop sign… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

The city of Los Angeles has ended its controversial red-light camera program, but motorists in the Santa Monica Mountains had better beware: Enforcement cameras are rolling on those leafy park roads.

A traffic surveillance system installed at the behest of a little-known government body called the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority has generated thousands of traffic citations for visitors at Franklin Canyon Park, Temescal Gateway Park and the Top of Topanga Overlook.

The cameras, which are designed to catch motorists rolling through stop signs, generated nearly $2.4 million in fines in the last fiscal year.

But the four-year-old system is also generating mounds of complaints from motorists who say the cameras are focused more on making money than on improving safety. The system, they say, throws due process out the window.

"It was a kangaroo court," motorist Todd Andrews said of his experience fighting the $175 citation. A court eventually found him not liable, but by then he had wrestled by phone with a collection agency.

"It's a form of harassment, in my opinion," Andrews said. "You're made to feel you're speeding through the park endangering children and hikers."

The agency defends the program, saying that fewer citations are being issued as the year progresses and that dog walkers, mothers with strollers and hikers feel more secure. "While we are aware that this program is unpopular with some people, we feel the program has been very successful in changing driver behavior and making the parks safer," said Dash Stolarz, a conservation authority spokeswoman.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, nearly 15,000 citations for rolling through stop signs were issued. The evidence against each vehicle owner: three still photos and a 12-second video clip — all shot from behind, with no image of the driver.

Critics such as Dennis Burke say the authority is running the cameras primarily for the cash.

Burke enjoys tramping the trails in Franklin Canyon Park, but his visits to the 605-acre expanse of chaparral and woods have cost him. In the span of three weeks, the film composer and college instructor racked up eight citations before he realized the cameras' existence.

"If the goal is to have people stop going through the stop signs, then give me a $20 warning and I'll never do it again," said Burke, who lives in Los Angeles and Vancouver. "If your goal is just to collect money, you're doing it right. In a few weeks, you made $1,000 off me."

The Los Angeles City Council last month killed off its much-maligned red-light camera program after officials said they viewed payments for camera-issued tickets as voluntary, and courts declined to aggressively pursue collections against those who ignored citations.

But that doesn't help those cited for stop-sign violations by the conservation authority — a government partnership between the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency) and two local park districts. Under the California Public Resources Code, local government entities such as the conservation authority may set and enforce their own rules for roadways in their parklands. Los Angeles' enforcement of red-light violations fell under the California Vehicle Code.

Cameras are now in place at six locations in the three parks; another camera was removed in January. Signs along roadways and at stop signs warn motorists that photo enforcement is used.

Each camera begins recording when a car's speed, as detected by a sensor embedded in the road, indicates that the motorist probably will not be able to stop at the sign. A park ranger views the images and determines whether a violation occurred.

If so, Redflex Traffic Systems, the Phoenix-based company that installed the cameras, sends a citation and a video link to the vehicle's registered owner. As with a parking ticket, the owner is deemed responsible regardless of who was driving. The citation is not reported to the Department of Motor Vehicles, but if it goes unpaid, a collection agency starts the dunning process.

Of the $2.4 million in gross proceeds the program raised last fiscal year, $369,600 went to Redflex as a flat fee. Most of the balance, the conservation authority says, was spent on improving the parks and ensuring visitors' safety. However, roughly one-fifth of the revenue was used to defend the traffic cameras against legal challenges, according to Jeffrey Maloney, the authority's staff counsel.

The ticket revenue represents about 8% of the authority's $29-million annual budget.

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