Stop sign cameras in mountain parks may take a hike

Stop sign photoThe Santa Monica Mountains are home to nearly 400 species of birds, more than 50 threatened or endangered plants and animals, and seven threatened or endangered photo-enforced stop signs.

State Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, wants to save the ticket-mailing stop signs from extinction, but Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, has introduced a bill to kill them off. In January, Senate Bill 218 will return to the Senate Natural Resources Committee for a second time, after Pavley, chair of the committee, blocked it in May.

“I find it promising that some of my colleagues believe, as I do, that no matter how noble the goal, the MRCA needs to better justify its stop sign camera enforcement program,” Huff said.

MRCA is the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority. It was formed in 1985 when the Conejo Recreation and Park District and the Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District joined with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to acquire, develop and conserve park and open-space lands. Today MRCA manages 72,000 acres of public lands from Ventura County to the San Gabriel Mountains.

MRCA’s noble goal is the safety of park visitors, whether they are hiking, dog-walking, bicycling, pushing a baby stroller or driving.

In pursuit of this goal, MRCA operates seven photo-enforced stop signs in its parks, which together generate $1.5 million annually in gross revenue. The automated system sends out about 25,000 tickets a year at $100 a pop, jumping to $500 for the third violation within 12 months.

The tickets are mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle as identified from a photo of the rear license plate. Appeals of violations are handled internally at MRCA and then can be taken to the Superior Court — about 50 percent of the tickets are tossed out. They are administrative citations, which don’t count against an individual’s driving record, but unpaid tickets are turned over to a collection agency.

It is disputed whether MRCA’s system, unique in California, is legal under the state’s vehicle code, and whether the placement of the signs is really motivated by safety concerns. Supervising ranger Jewel Johnson told the Senate committee the signs are thoughtfully placed to protect pedestrians and to slow down speeding commuters who use park roads as a shortcut.

But a recent visit to two of the parks calls that claim into question.

Near the entrance to Marvin Braude Mulholland Gateway Park, located at the south end of Reseda Boulevard, a photo-enforced stop sign is placed at a mid-point in the road where there is no intersection. A crosswalk in front of the stop line leads to a hiking trail on one side, but it seems unnecessary to force every car to come to a complete stop on the road leading out of the park if no one is waiting to cross.

The Top of Topanga Overlook is a narrow walkway where visitors can see a wide view of the San Fernando Valley. The tiny park has 16 parking spaces, three picnic tables, a few benches, some deceased shrubs and a photo-enforced stop sign. It nails drivers as they exit the park in a right-turn-only lane that puts them on northbound Topanga Canyon Boulevard. The placement of the sign doesn’t protect pedestrians or slow traffic in the park. It’s just a stop sign at the end of a right-turn lane, and the fines for rolling through it go to MRCA.

The fines also go to Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., a Phoenix company that makes red light camera systems and speed enforcement cameras as well as the stop sign setups.

In June, former Redflex CEO Karen Finley pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges for giving money to officials in Columbus and Cincinnati in order to land contracts. And last year, Chicago ended its relationship with Redflex after a federal grand jury issued a 23-count indictment accusing the company of paying off city officials to get $124 million in public contracts.

Here in California, Redflex has spent $1.2 million lobbying the state Legislature since 2009.

Redflex is opposed to Sen. Huff’s bill, which would make photo-enforced stop signs illegal in the Santa Monica Mountains and everywhere else in the state.

“We all share a common love for our public parks and want people to have a safe and enjoyable experience while visiting them,” Huff said. “We shouldn’t be punishing people who are enjoying a day in the park with an arbitrary ticket.”

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