Dan Walters

Powerful California agencies feeling political heat in the Capitol

Over 500 attended a California Coastal Commission meeting in Morro Bay on Feb. 10 to protest the planned dismissal of its executive director, Charles Lester.
Over 500 attended a California Coastal Commission meeting in Morro Bay on Feb. 10 to protest the planned dismissal of its executive director, Charles Lester. The Associated Press

As state legislators plowed through hundreds of bills and began fashioning a final state budget last week, a strong theme emerged – unhappiness with some powerful state agencies and an appetite for reform.

Most interestingly, the sentiments were not particularly partisan, and in some cases were very bipartisan.

The targets of legislative disdain included the Public Utilities Commission, which has been buffeted by scandal and accused of being lackadaisical and too protective of the services it’s supposed to regulate. The Assembly approved a constitutional amendment that would dismantle the venerable agency and redistribute its many duties.

Others included the Board of Equalization, the State Bar and the state Coastal Commission.

The common thread was that all of those receiving critical attention have been accustomed to doing things their own way for many decades.

The State Bar is a prime example, acting simultaneously as the licensing and regulatory agency for the state’s lawyers and as a trade association for the legal profession.

Critics, including the state auditor’s office, have accused it of failing to act on complaints of lawyer misconduct while wasting money. It fired one executive director, former state Sen. Joe Dunn, who responded with a lawsuit alleging malfeasance.

When the State Bar made its annual request for “dues” on attorneys, critics pounced. A dues bill that reached the Assembly floor contained some mild reforms, but received just a handful of votes after multiple legislators denounced the agency and demanded more changes.

Later in the week, a revised bill was approved, changing the makeup of the State Bar’s board and suggesting it may be forced to divide its unique regulatory and advocacy roles – a long-overdue change.

Several Coastal Commission bills stemmed from a blowup in the agency that controls development along the state’s lengthy coastline.

Earlier this year, a majority of the commissioners voted to dismiss their executive director, angering environmentalists who saw it as a coup favoring developers. Last week, the Assembly voted to expand the commission by three members and require that those who represent interests in cases before the commission register as lobbyists.

The first step smacks of packing, but the second is something that should have happened many years ago, when scandals first enveloped the commission.

The Board of Equalization, four of whose five members are directly elected from huge districts, is clearly beset by internal bickering, and The Sacramento Bee has revealed that its former chairman, Jerome Horton, has rented a lavish suite of offices for himself in a high-rise building. In response, the budget conference committee is likely to include some tighter monitoring of and restrictions on its spending.

The appetite for reform even extends to local agencies. The Assembly passed a bill to overhaul governance of Southern California’s Central Basin Municipal Water District, which has been enmeshed in scandal.

Speaking of hidebound, insular agencies: If this trend continues, the Legislature might even get around to reforming itself.