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Name: Edmiston, Joe
Current Position: Executive Director

By the time Los Angeles Magazine got around to proclaiming conservancy Executive Director Joseph T. Edmiston one of California’s most powerful unelected officials in 2005, he had already spent 25 years reshaping parklands in the Santa Monica Mountains.

The conservancy’s first, and only, executive director received his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California in 1970. He attended the University of West Los Angeles School of Law but did not graduate, instead taking a job in 1973 as a Sierra Club lobbyist in Sacramento. Edmiston worked there for four years, helping produce legislation like the bill setting up the State Coastal Commission. In 1976, Governor Jerry Brown tracked him down at a miniature golf course and offered to appoint him executive director of the conservancy’s forerunner, the Santa Monica Mountains Comprehensive Planning Commission. He accepted and at 28 became the youngest head of an agency in state government.

As leader of the commission he helped create the Santa Monica Mountains Comprehensive Plan, which fashioned land use policies for other local government entities to follow. The plan laid the groundwork for the conservancy, which was established in 1980.

Edmiston hit the ground running and by the end of the decade had already set the template for the conservancy: highly successful land acquisitions, controversial deals with developers, aggressive negotiations and tactics, a high profile in the media and the wielding of significant political power by its executive director.

He, and the conservancy, quickly acquired more than 17,000 acres, negotiated big deals with celebrity land owners like Bob Hope and angered environmentalists over Faustian bargains with developers and the manner in which he pursued them—appearing before regulatory bodies, in the guise of a lobbyist.

While many have likened him to Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park, others say a more apt comparison would be to Robert Moses, who reshaped that city and its parks in the mid-20th century by sometimes bulldozing entire neighborhoods.

Edmiston, who has a fondness for appearing in public wearing a park ranger uniform, is credited with hitting on an idea for using joint power agreements to extend the reach of the conservancy. Although the clustering of local government units for a common purpose had been around for decades, he was arguably the first to utilize it for acquiring and maintaining entire park projects. The 1985 creation of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority gave him revenue options and management powers not available to a conservancy. He is its executive director. 

By 2012, the conservancy had acquired more than 65,000 acres of parkland and improved more than 114 Southern California public recreational facilities.


Striking Deals for Parkland (by Jack Cheevers, Los Angeles Times)

Parks Group Delays Vote on Reining In Top Executive (by Jack Cheevers, Los Angeles Times)

The Natural (by Ron Russell, Los Angeles Times)

Architectural Guild Awards (USC School of Architecture)

King of the Hills (by Lewis Macadams, Los Angeles Magazine)

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