Trails Safety Issue Ignored by Task Force

After an August hiatus, the Multi-Jurisdictional Trails Task Force resumed its monthly hearings on Wednesday, September 5, and was more interesting for what wasn’t on the agenda than what was. Namely, there was no follow-up report presented to the Task Force by Santa Barbara County and City staff that attended an all-day risk management workshop on August 22.

Held at the Cabrillo Arts Center, the August 22 workshop was hosted by the Public Risk Management Association in cooperation with the City of Santa Barbara. Several City staff members attended, including Kathy Frye, Jill Zachary, and Eric Reynolds, Risk Analyst for the City of Santa Barbara. Claude Garciacelay attended on behalf of the Santa Barbara County Parks Department. Several other cities throughout California sent their risk managers, parks and recreation staff, and trail personnel. The workshop was open to the public.

The Sierra Club, which leads over 200 hikes per year on Santa Barbara trails and thus represents by far the largest user group, received no official notification about the risk workshop. “We only found out about it from an equestrian in the Los Angeles area,” said Tony Biegen, Sierra Club’s Outings Chairman. The Los Padres Chapter of the Sierra Club ultimately sent four representatives.

The speaker was Doug Wyseman, who has been involved in risk management since 1973. He has worked in the public sector as risk manager for a large Canadian municipality, and in the private sector for insurers of public entities, both in the United States and Canada. Prior to the workshop, Wyseman was provided with the same videos of mountain bikers on local trails that the Task Force had seen at a previous meeting during the Sierra Club’s presentation. Wyseman acknowledged the footage was compelling evidence that a clear danger exists on the local trails.

“If you have knowledge of a danger, or should have this knowledge, you have an obligation to protect others from that danger,” Wyseman told workshop attendees. “The big concern,” he continued, “is what’s the [trail’s] use? If my behavior is going to cause anyone else harm, then it shouldn’t be allowed.

“It seems very clear that the trend over the next five years is that there will be more and more people wanting to use the trails,” said Wyseman. “It will be disaster if people don’t have the resolve to say that one user group such as bikers are inappropriate.”

Wyseman pointed out that because Santa Barbara has held hearings on the trail safety issue since the 1980s, and because there have been numerous dangerous incidents over the years since then, culminating with the death of the horse Rocket in October, 2005, that local government agencies could easily be found guilty of gross negligence. Furthermore, he pointed out, they could also be in danger of losing their immunity since the situation has been allowed to persist for so long. Wyseman bolstered his observations with examples of numerous court cases wherein government agencies have paid out multi-million dollar settlements over lawsuits resulting from conditions far less dangerous than what exists in Santa Barbara.

“The trail conflict situation in Santa Barbara concerns me more than any I’ve seen anywhere else in the United States or Canada,” said Wyseman in a follow-up telephone interview.

Despite the seriousness of what was learned at the risk management workshop, it did not rate an item on the Task Force agenda. Briefly mentioning that the workshop had taken place, Jill Zachary told the Task Force, “We did this to get a better handle on risk management. We may be bringing that information to you in the future as it’s relevant.”

“The fact that government staff don’t think gross negligence and loss of immunity is of immediate relevance to the Task Force, reflects our concerns that the Task Force hearings have become too staff-driven and are still not dealing with the obvious issue of trail safety,” Sierra Club rep Tony Biegen concluded.

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