Parking scofflaws in Malibu have a new hazard to face starting Thursday, when the city for the first time will allow volunteers to issue real parking tickets.
The city said the program could save Malibu as much as $50,000, preserve deputies' valuable time for more serious crimes, and enable it to enforce new parking restrictions.
But some are suspicious of the city's intentions.
From volunteer to VIP?
The effort is an extension of Malibu's "Volunteers On Patrol" program. The group's members have been assisting deputies with directing traffic, monitoring parking, and issuing warning citations for the past two years.
Though they may have looked like tickets, those warnings didn't come with a cost.
The citations the volunteers will issue starting Thursday have teeth. They'll be real tickets, with real fines.
City of Malibu spokeswoman Sandi Turner says the program comes "at the right time" — just as the city has added new parking regulations to help with the congested parking on its public streets.
She adds that the volunteers have been well-trained by the sheriff's department.
"They attend a half-day training wherein they're taught about what constitutes a moving violation, how to mark tires on cars, how to deal with people and avoid conflict — that kind of thing," she says.
A new sheriff in town
To demonstrate, head volunteer Daniel Villefort draws a line in chalk at the base of a convertible's tire, then another on the asphalt underneath it.
"It's a very easy process. You mark the bottom of the wheel... And then you make a horizontal line," he said.
The tactic allows him to keep track of how long a car has been in its parking space. "Most of us put an arrow in the direction that the car is parked, just in case" the car has moved, he said.
In three hours, if the chalk is still on the tire and on the asphalt where he marked it, it would be ticket time for this grey convertible.
Villfort has volunteering with the L.A. sheriffs department volunteer program for the last 20 years. His wife, Denise, joined about a year and a half ago and serves as the group coordinator. She keeps track of shifts and makes sure the whole city is being patrolled.
The pair head up a group of 10 volunteers, all from Malibu, with ages ranging from 21 to —
"Well, we won't tell you, but it's past 60," Denise Villefort said, adding with a laugh. "It's impolite to talk about age."
For the most part, volunteers go out on their own, whenever they like. They're required to tell Denise Villefort when they'll be going, and they're required to devote at least 16 hours a month to the effort, although there is some give and take there.
"One month you may do 14 [hours] and the next month you may do 26," she said, "depending on what's going on the city and what kind of emergencies there are."
"It's not strict enforcement," Daniel Villefort said.
Volunteers get a police radio, book of citations, some chalk, a uniform and vest with the insignias of the sheriff's department and the city of Malibu on it. They also have a car they can use at City Hall, though it's currently in the shop being equipped with additional lights. It recently won an award for best vehicle at an annual citizens on patrol conference.
Issuing tickets isn't the only service the volunteers perform for the city. They also assist with directing traffic when the need arises and act as ambassadors for the city, helping disabled vehicles get to a mechanic or offering information on where to go for dinner.
"That's part of the job as we see it, is to help our visitors, help our residents if they need it," said Denise Villefort.
But they are not deputized. They are not permitted to carry weapons, and they cannot make arrests.
If they encounter any hostility, they're trained to do what they can to deescalate the situation and call for back-up if needed.
"Your protection is your radio, and your attitude," Daniel Villefort said.
Parking is a premium
Parking has always been a concern in the beachside city. The shoulder of the Pacific Coast Highway that borders much of Malibu's pristine beaches is often clogged with parked cars and campers. Parking spots on streets near the beach and shopping malls like Cross Creek can fill up with vehicles whose owners lounge on the beach.
All of that, Daniel Villefort said, is exacerbated by an extremely busy tourist season.
Recently, Malibu added a three-hour time limit to a number of these formerly limitless parking spaces. Most everyone agrees that the time limits will ease some of Malibu's parking woes. More turnover of parking spaces could make it easier for beach-goers to find a spot, and area businesses would benefit from the more regular flow of potential customers.
Public beach access in Malibu is so contentious - with beach-goers and homeowners competing for parking - that even this effort has been viewed with suspicion.
Jenny Price is an advocate for public access to Malibu beaches. She's the brains behind the "Our Malibu Beaches" smartphone app, which recently raised over $30,000 with the promise to provide clarity into how to navigate access points to Malibu's beaches. All of them are public, but they're not always easily accessible. Beach-goers sometimes have to run a gauntlet of false signs and hidden access points.
"There are a lot of problems with parking in Malibu," Price said. "And what Malibu has completely ignored is the problem of the privatization of public space."
Restricting parking, she said, is one of the many ways beachside property owners have tried to block access to the beaches in the past.
"So you have a lot of problems on the public roads where people have put up no parking signs, where they have fake driveways, where they have fake garage doors, where they put out orange cones, sometimes in conjunction with no parking signs, where they actually send security guards out and tell you you can't park there," Price said.
Price is skeptical of Malibu using volunteers to enforce new parking restrictions when it hasn't addressed longstanding access issues.
"So I think that is really interesting that they're so concerned about this parking near the big public beaches, and yet they've shown no concern at all about the really serious problem of blocking off public parking by private homeowners," she said.
Altruism or activism?
Malibu isn't the only city that allows trained volunteers to issue tickets. Calabasas, Agoura Hills, Santa Clarita and Thousand Oaks all have similar programs, city spokeswoman Turner points out.
Price said it's the city's contentious history with public accessibility issues that has some seeing city-sanctioned protectionism where others see community-minded altruism.
"I think it's that Malibu, they have so much ill will built up that nobody trusts them when it comes to anything to do with public space," saidPrice. "So it's really getting up people's hackles even though nobody really knows exactly what the program seems to involve."
As for the fake parking signs? Daniel says they won't be issuing tickets to those who park in those spots. At the same time, his team won't be pulling them down either.
The city says the volunteers will not be patrolling Pacific Coast Highway, where many of the signs are likely to be. But even if they do run across them, it would be trespassing on private property if they were to remove the signs.
In any case, Daniel Villefort said they’re easy to spot.
"It's enough to look in the back of the sign, and a real sign has engraved to whom that sign belongs," he said. If it's not stamped with a city or state agency, chances are it's fake.
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