Capitol Alert

Environmentalists suffer defeat on Coastal Commission bills

California Assembly leader responds to coastal commission shakeup

Then-Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, discusses in February 2016 a bill requiring people who lobby the California Coastal Commission to register. Lawmakers have criticized the firing of former commission head Charles Lester.
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Then-Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, discusses in February 2016 a bill requiring people who lobby the California Coastal Commission to register. Lawmakers have criticized the firing of former commission head Charles Lester.

Efforts by Democratic lawmakers to overhaul two state environmental boards they viewed as too tight with developers and the oil industry foundered badly on the final day of the legislative session.

Three bills to increase transparency at the California Coastal Commission and increase state appointments to a Southern California air pollution regulator fell far short of passage in the Senate and Assembly after business and labor groups stepped up pressure on legislators. Another effort to overhaul the embattled Public Utilities Commission also failed.

The loss was particularly stinging for members who have led a vocal campaign this year against perceived problems at the coastal commission. Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, said she would take up the fight again next session.

“Our coast is not the property of well-connected special interests. It is not a bargaining chip for backroom deal-making,” she said in a statement. “It is for all of us, and we must continue to fight to protect it for our state and future generations.”

Environmentalists were enraged in February when the commission’s longtime head Charles Lester was fired amid murky public explanations, a move critics attributed to maneuvering by pro-development forces on the board.

Legislators quickly responded with two measures: Assembly Bill 2002, which would require paid consultants who lobby the commission to register with the state, and Senate Bill 1190, to prohibit private, off-the-record communications between commissioners and those with a stake in the issues before them.

With little debate, the Senate rejected AB 2002, which fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass. Over in the Assembly, SB 1190 fared even worse, garnering support from only 12 members while 45 opposed it. Laughter and an audible “woo!” echoed through the chamber.

While supporters made the case that the commission needed to restore the public’s faith by cutting down on secret meetings that are overwhelmingly taken with developers and their consultants, lawmakers objected vigorously to what they depicted as a damper on free speech that would make it harder for board members to do their jobs.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a Democrat from San Diego and a former member of the Coastal Commission, argued the bill would hurt Spanish-speaking residents and those who lack the time to travel to commission meetings.

“Everybody uses this process to communicate with people who are like-minded and share their values and want to be in the same place, and it’s a problem when you cut this off,” she said.

Another controversy arose simultaneously this February after Republicans gained control of the powerful South Coast Air Quality Management District, which regulates air pollution for a vast four-county region encompassing about 17 million residents. Vowing a friendlier approach to industry, they quickly moved to fire the board’s executive director and institute new smog rules backed by oil refineries and other major polluters.

Lawmakers responded with Senate Bill 1387 to add three new appointees to the 13-member board from low-income and highly polluted communities, selected by the governor, the Senate Rules Committee and the Assembly speaker. It failed on the Assembly floor Wednesday with only 30 votes, 11 short of a majority.

Supporters defended the bill as necessary to combat a lack of diversity on the panel, whose members are primarily local county supervisors and city council members.

“I’ve seen some of the whitest white boards in the state on these commissions,” said Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles.

But opponents decried the bill as a “cynical ploy” to usurp local control and stack the air board with appointees sympathetic to environmental interests.

“This legislation is absolute hogwash and should be flushed down into the gutters,” said Assemblyman Matthew Harper, R-Huntington Beach. “Sacramento should not choose our representatives for us.”

Legislation to overhaul California’s public utilities regulator, meanwhile, also stalled in the final hours.

After a string of scandals ratcheted up pressure on the California Public Utilities Commission, Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, pushed a constitutional amendment that could have dismantled the regulator. With the measure advancing steadily through the Legislature, Gatto and Gov. Jerry Brown announced a deal to enact some wide-ranging changes.

A major piece of that deal, Assembly Bill 2903, sought to enact changes that included establishing an ombudsman and an internal auditor, transferring some authority to enforce rules governing transportation companies, and expanding public records disclosure rules.

But Republicans did not grant a needed waiver for a vote on Wednesday night before a midnight deadline for the end of the legislative session.

Then-Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, discusses in February 2016 a bill requiring people who lobby the California Coastal Commission to register. Lawmakers have criticized the firing of former commission head Charles Lester.

Jeremy B. White of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff. Jeremy B. White contributed to this report.

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