Fire Prevention Sparks an Unexpected Nuisance

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By Jennifer Erickson | LB Indy

When law enforcement began regularly patrolling around the Top of the World neighborhood park in late June because of heightened fire danger, they discovered that Yelp reviews had made the area a very popular nighttime hangout for young people involving drugs, alcohol and other hazardous behavior.

Since June 21, police have issued 100 administrative citations carrying a $1,000 fine for smoking in prohibited areas, all written to non-residents. They also issued 178 other citations, some criminal, and made 50 arrests for a range of criminal offenses.

But there’s a catch.

Not one of the smoking violators had paid until last week when a plan to pursue the fines was added to this week’s City Council agenda. Police have since received payment from 12 offenders, Captain Darin Lenyi informed the Council.

Though the fine does seem to be a deterrent since there have been no repeat offenders, the lack of payment has created unanticipated staff costs, according to Lenyi. Up to 20 percent of offenders have requested appeal hearings that cost the city $80 each. And even after the hearings conclude in the city’s favor, the offenders still don’t pay. Others request hardship waivers, said Lenyi.

Meanwhile, staff time is taken up sending past due notices, and handling appeals, hearings and waivers, according to the report. By contrast, 85 percent of offenders issued other administrative citations by local police usually settle their debt, the report says.

Council member Toni Iseman proposed hiking smoking fines to $1,000 to crack down on smokers, but was opposed to criminalizing the offense as a misdemeanor.

As a civil matter, administrative fines are proving hard to collect.

People mistakenly think unpaid fines will result in arrest warrants because years ago parking citations were a criminal matter and unpaid tickets did lead to a warrant, explained Captain Jason Kravetz. But since they were decriminalized, making them a civil matter, that no longer holds true. When it comes to administrative citations, “our recourse is to attach their state tax returns or report the lack of payment to one of the credit reporting firms,” said Kravetz.

If the violator were a Laguna Beach resident, the city could place an assessment on their property tax bill for the unpaid fine. But none are, Lenyi said.

As a remedy, Lenyi said the staff recommended amending the city’s contract with the company that currently collects parking fines to have them do the same for the administrative citations, and changing the smoking violation to a three-tiered fine, costing $250 for the first offense, $500 for the second and $1,000 for the third. In this scenario, the existing signs indicating a $1,000 fine could legally remain in place, noted City Manager John Pietig. The overall program has been very successful with the neighborhood, he said.

The Council approved the staff recommendations, 4-1, with Iseman dissenting since she opposed reducing the fine.

In addition to the patrols, the area is under video surveillance. Laguna Beach Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse described two sets of cameras currently in use: One set of three cameras was installed at very end of Alta Laguna’s cul-de-sac at the park entrance at the start of the summer, and last week another set of three cameras was installed at Carolyn Wood Knoll. Additionally, one of the cameras at the knoll can be manipulated remotely at the station and is equipped with a speaker, allowing whoever is monitoring the cameras to address anyone there, said LaTendresse.

“What we believe is that the location has a much broader reputation and appeal than we had previously imagined,” Police Chief Paul Workman said in an email to residents of the neighborhood. “This will be a long-term enforcement project for the department that will need to continue during fire season each year.”

Council member Steve Dicterow asked Lenyi why Alta Laguna Park draws more such activity than other parks. “In a word, Yelp,” Lenyi replied, referring to the popular review site. Officers posed the same question to out-of-towners, who said they were looking for a view spot and were guided by Yelp recommendations.

Indeed. If you Google the phrase “beautiful view in Laguna Beach” the first two entries that come up are for Yelp pages that list Top of the World park.

 

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