L.A. County supervisors learned Tuesday what happens when you try to fix a problem that doesn’t really exist.
It all began last week when the supervisors approved what they thought was a routine updating of various county beach codes, including a four-decade-old ban on playing football and Frisbee on public sand.
But that section of the law was obscure. Beach officials had not issued a single citation in at least 40 years.
The update, part of an effort by county lawyers to clean up and modernize volumes of laws, called for loosening the ban on ball play during the fall, winter and spring months when fewer crowds are at the beach.
But then, erroneous media reports went viral, with various websites and talk-radio stations spreading the purported news that the county had enacted a $1,000 fine against would-be football and Frisbee throwers. Talk-show host Rush Limbaugh set the tone, calling the county’s law an “encroachment of soft tyranny.”
Protests started pouring in over phone and email, prompting Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky to hold a news conference to clarify the issue.
He held up a football and assured that “nobody’s going to get fined $1,000" for throwing one and asked beachgoers to exercise “common sense.”
Officials also ordered the director of the Department of Beaches and Harbors to once again explain the Frisbee and ball playing provisions at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. But that was still not enough.
The supervisors then ordered staff to rewrite the section of the ordinance regarding Frisbee and ball playing “in a manner which clearly states that such activities by small groups and individuals are allowed at all times on the county beach,” with a few exceptions.
“While I appreciate the clarification, I’m concerned once again that the misunderstanding will continue,” said Supervisor Don Knabe, who added that the codes should be written so that allowing such activities becomes “the rule and not the exception.”
Karen North, director of the Annenberg Program on Online Communities, said it wasn’t surprising that the erroneous reports caused such a stir.
“One of the negative sides of social media and the digital age,” she said, “is anything that’s shocking or entertaining has its viral appeal.”
Officials say it is necessary to have laws on the books, even regarding ball playing at the beach, to protect public safety in part by dissuading large groups of people from setting up a football game or ultimate Frisbee match on the sand near crowds.
Dennis Petillo, 54, of Los Angeles would probably agree. As he visited county-managed Dockweiler State Beach on Tuesday, he said people should be allowed to throw a pigskin “if they can play without hurting or distracting” others or “getting sand in people’s faces or food.”
Yaroslavsky summed up the matter as “much ado about nothing.”
“I think when the ordinance is finally written, it will reflect the reality on our beaches,” he said.
Los Angeles Times staff writers Martha Groves and Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.