Capitol Alert

California Senate votes to ban private talks at coastal board

More than 500 people attended a California Coastal Commission meeting in Morro Bay in February when Executive Director Charles Lester was dismissed.
More than 500 people attended a California Coastal Commission meeting in Morro Bay in February when Executive Director Charles Lester was dismissed. The Tribune (San Luis Obispo)

Lingering frustration over potentially cozy relationships between California’s coastal protection agency and developers prompted the state Senate on Monday to advance legislation prohibiting board members from engaging in private, off-the-record conversations with the parties in permit decisions and other matters.

Under current law, these “ex parte” communications are allowed as long they are disclosed through a form or, if they occurred less than seven days before a meeting, verbally at that hearing. Supporters of Senate Bill 1190 allege that builders and their consultants have developed special access to the California Coastal Commission because of their full-time involvement in the issues it oversees.

“These quasi-lobbyists literally travel with the coastal commissioners. They are everywhere,” said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, the bill’s author. “This process has become flawed, seriously flawed.”

Jackson said the law would ensure that the quasi-judicial procedures that encompass the vast majority of the commission’s work, such as granting permits and taking enforcement actions against improper development, is conducted with the transparency and impartiality the public expects.

The bill was prompted by the controversial firing earlier this year of veteran Coastal Commission director Charles Lester.

The commission, established in 1972 by voter initiative, said Lester was removed because of his poor leadership at the agency. But environmentalists, commission staff and dozens of former commissioners rallied to his side amid charges that he was being pushed out by pro-development forces.

Led by the Senate’s majority Democrats, SB 1190 passed 23-12 and now moves to the Assembly.

Nearly every Republican voted against the bill. Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, called it an “overreaction,” telling colleagues, “You’ve got to learn to let managers be managers.”

Two senators who are former members of the Coastal Commission split on the measure. Sen. Ben Hueso, a San Diego Democrat and a commissioner from 2007 to 2009, left the room during the debate and did not vote.

But Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, said she was overwhelmed during her time on the commission from 1995 to 2000 by the ability of certain advocates with a lot of money to find her at home or work and set up a time to talk.

“There is a problem. There is undue influence, and it’s not fair,” she said. “I unfortunately think we need this protection in place.”

Another bill that would require paid consultants who lobby the agency to register with the state and disclose their clients is awaiting a vote in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff