California Forum

Hold Coastal Commission accountable in recognizing civil rights

As Coastal Commission member Wendy Mitchell observed in her op-ed, the recent decision to oust the executive director has thrust the commission into the limelight (“Coastal Commission will commit to transparency”; Viewpoints, Feb. 28). Indeed, Californians are just as concerned about the management of our beloved coastline now as we were when voters created the commission in the 1970s, but today our voices are even more diverse and, therefore, stronger.

Coastal commissioners need to understand that coastal planning is more than an environmental or economic issue – it has fundamental civil rights, health and social justice implications.

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, trips to the beach were a matter of survival during triple-digit heat waves. As an environmental justice and civil rights attorney in Southern California, I spent more than 10 years working on behalf of low-income communities and communities of color to ensure equal access to public resources. During that time, I co-authored “Free the Beach!”, which traces the history of exclusion and discrimination at California’s beaches.

The Coastal Act charges the commission with ensuring public access for all. Many residents lack access to parks and open space, so they rely on our beaches. Yet, even today, they are routinely and illegally denied coastal access and excluded from the public dialogue.

The communities most affected by the privatization of beaches are often shut out of decision-making. We don’t need rhetoric; we need leadership in the Coastal Commission to defend our civil rights.

The commission can take immediate action by:

▪ Including social justice, environmental justice, education and health organizations as formal stakeholders in the hiring process for an executive director;

▪ Hosting a series of community-led meetings in locations that are accessible to non-coastal communities on how planning decisions must take into account environmental justice, and include full and fair participation by low-income communities and communities of color;

▪ Publicly committing to comply with federal and state civil rights laws that prohibit intentional discrimination and unjustified discriminatory impacts.

Tension around decision-making by the commission is frequently framed, inadequately, as a matter of development vs. environmental protection. In reality, the work of safeguarding our beaches from the interests of wealthy developers and landowners goes far beyond conservation.

The diverse people of California plan to hold the commission accountable for doing its job, and that job must recognize civil rights as a core consideration for all coastal decision-making.

Erica Flores Baltodano is co-author of “Free the Beach!”, a law review article in the Stanford Journal of Civil Rights & Civil Liberties. She sits on the National Advisory Council for The City Project in Los Angeles.