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A sign posted at Polliwog Park warns of a $1,000 fine for violating Manhattan Beach's emergency order closing parks due to the coronavirus pandemic. These will change this weekend as the city reopen the park, with regulations. (Lisa Jacobs)

Samantha Harte walked the track at Manhattan Beach’s Polliwog Park with her 4-year-old and 16-month old children on April 4, two days after she’d visited the track at the El Segundo Recreation Center.

The Hawthorne resident said an El Segundo police officer told her what they were doing was fine — the city just didn’t want children on the play equipment or people gathering — so she assumed the same would go for Polliwog.

Not so. Harte was cited by a Manhattan Beach Police officer.

More than a month later, Harte received a letter from the city requiring the $1,000 fine payment within 30 days of the letter date, or else be subject to legal action. She could also file an appeal with the $1,000 payment — plus a $1,500 deposit for hearing expenses.

If the appellants win, they get the $2,500 back, said Jennifer Petrusis, assistant city attorney for Manhattan Beach. If the citation is upheld, she added, they’ll be charged that full amount.

She’s among residents who say the message wasn’t well-communicated and intend to appeal.

City officials disagree, saying the citations were intended to keep residents safe and align with Los Angeles County’s Safer-at-Home social-distancing strategy, aimed at “flattening the curve” of the COVID-19’s alarming spread.

People cited have the right to contest their tickets, according to Mayor Pro Tem Suzanne Hadley, and extenuating circumstances will be considered. Those cited can provide proof of financial hardship, the notice states, if the person isn’t able to deposit the full amount.

A written appeal must be given to the city clerk with the $1,500 deposit and the $1,000 fine, the letter reads. Tax returns, bank statements, salary statements and similar documents can be submitted to demonstrate inability to pay.

An April 3 emergency order from Manhattan Beach ordered enforcement of $1,000 fines for people seen at closed city areas, including parks.

Signs detailing the closures and fines were posted around the city, including at parks, the next morning, Hadley said

The city doled out 129 citations over the April 4 weekend for such allegations as entering closed places and lack of social distancing. Since then, according to Hadley, citations have dropped off substantially.

“In March and early April we initially tried signage and education to gain compliance with fast-moving closures,” Hadley added, “But crowds and gatherings were still happening.”

Polliwog Park has since partially reopened, Hadley said, and residents are now largely complying with social distancing.

But in early April, amid the closure, visitors were still entering and playing in closed parks, she said, and residents were clamoring for more enforcement. The City Council directed police to issue more citations.

“In one week the city issued more than 100 citations. That sent a strong message,” Hadley said.

The goal wasn’t to wring $1,000 tickets out of residents, Hadley said. It was to enforce health orders and keep residents safe.

But park visitor Harte said the only visible “do not enter” signs surrounded the playground — not the entire park. “Where we entered, there was no barricade,” Harte said by phone Thursday, “We just walked onto the track from the grass.”

At first, the city posted signs on barricades and sawhorses around the park, 50 feet or so apart, said Sgt. Tim Zins, public information officer for  Manhattan Beach police. But people were still entering the parks, he said.

“People were not seeing them, or ignoring them,” Zins said. “We kept getting calls to the parks.”  In response, the city taped off the entire park’s perimeter and added warnings about the $1,000 fines to signs, Zins said.

Mike Lucus, who lives within walking distance of Polliwog Park, said a park ranger told him it was OK to walk there — only playground activity and large gatherings were prohibited — about four days before he got cited there on April 4.

Only playground and other equipment was taped off initially, Lucus said by phone Thursday. A few days after he got his ticket, the city taped off the whole park and signs warning about fines were posted.

Lucus contended that only after he was fined did the city amp up the visibility of warnings.

However, Zins said, no one was cited before the city sent out Nixle notices, press releases and social media messages addressing the fines associated with closures.

Harte wants to contest her ticket, she said, but would rather had been given a court date without paying $2,500 that she doesn’t know she’ll see back. “My husband and I are small business owners,” she said, “So we’re not in a position to give over that kind of money” during a pandemic crisis.

“There was no chance to have my story even be heard without giving the extremely hefty deposit,” Harte said. “That’s the part of it I think was most difficult to swallow.”

“I’m thinking about not doing anything and letting them sue me for the $1,000,” Lucus said.

Harte and Lucus have 20 days from the date on the letter to appeal the fine, but time is ticking away. Lucus’ letter is dated May 7 and he received it May 13.

“That’s the part I think is pretty crazy,” Lucus said.

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