A murky bid to block Coastal Commission transparency

A bill aimed at protecting vistas like this, in Laguna Beach, and restoring trust in the California Coastal Commission has been sidetracked, suspiciously.
A bill aimed at protecting vistas like this, in Laguna Beach, and restoring trust in the California Coastal Commission has been sidetracked, suspiciously. shubler@sacbee.com

It’s unclear why a perfectly reasonable bill to deter backroom influence on the California Coastal Commission was derailed in the Assembly last week.

Senate Bill 1190 by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, unfortunately, is needed. Wracked with internal drama this year, and besieged with tales of members being wined, dined and blatantly courted by rich landowners, the Coastal Commission has managed in a matter of months to develop a fairly serious public trust problem.

Since the ugly firing of longtime executive director Charles Lester, complaints have arisen that some commissioners are too cozy with lobbyists and developers. And at least four lawsuits have been filed, charging, among other things, that coastal projects were approved due to inappropriate private lobbying of commissioners.

People sue the Coastal Commission all the time, for lots of reasons, but this situation can’t continue to fester. A national search is underway for someone of stature to replace Lester, and no one who’s anyone will embrace a place this dysfunctional.

Senate Bill 1190, which would ban private lobbying of commission members, sailed through the Senate, partly because it is such an obvious first step. But it has been bottled up in the Assembly Appropriations Committee for reasons that appear, frankly, fishy. It isn’t as if these concerns over private lobbying come out of thin air.

There was, for example, the meeting, set up by an influential lobbyist specializing in commission business, between Commissioner Mark Vargas and David “The Edge” Evans, the U2 guitarist. They hung out in Ireland – sláinte! – days before Vargas voted to approve Evans’ controversial blufftop Malibu compound.

Then there were the private meetings Commission Chairman Steve Kinsey had with representatives of the Newport Banning Ranch project, a prime swath of undeveloped Orange County coastal land.

These private briefings – and tours, and chats, and mixers, and sleepovers at lobbyists’ beach houses – run counter to the role of the commission

Such “ex parte” contact, as it is called, isn’t necessarily as bad as it looks, but it long has been a worry. In 1992, Gov. Pete Wilson signed a bill intended to ban ex parte communication – a bill whose intent has been ignored, according to its author, former Assemblyman Terry Friedman, a Los Angeles Democrat and a retired Los Angeles Superior Court judge.

In a letter supporting SB 1190, Friedman said his bill was meant to prohibit ex parte communications. But in the years since, he wrote, “my objective to ensure that important decisions about coastal development are made in public, not behind closed doors, has been thwarted by a proliferation of unregistered and unregulated lobbyists, and evasive, boilerplate disclosures.”

While existing law requires commissioners to report private meetings, they sometimes don’t report them at all, or hide what happened in brief notes, written by the lobbyists themselves, in some cases. According to the Los Angeles Times, Vargas dashed off the U2 meeting in a sentence or two that said little, and Kinsey didn’t report his ex parte contacts on the Newport Banning Ranch project until the Times asked for it.

These private briefings – and tours, and chats, and mixers, and sleepovers at lobbyists’ beach houses – run counter to the role of the commission. Coastal commissioners are like judges: They review projects and decide whether they’re allowed by the California Coastal Act.

They call balls and strikes. They’re not like legislators, who make policy by drawing from lots of sources. They’re supposed to work from a single shared set of facts, openly available to all sides, to protect the public’s right of due process.

Just as judges don’t allow prosecutors and defense lawyers to buttonhole them outside the courtroom or present evidence while plying them with cocktails, the commissioners shouldn’t give developers – or environmentalists, or any outside party – individual private audiences outside the realm of the case file and the hearing room. To do so tilts the playing field and invites lawsuits.

Some commissioners say that, as volunteers with their own lives and jobs to attend to, they need ex parte contacts to help them make sense of the voluminous data they’re forced to sift through. Others have complained that they don’t trust the commission staff to objectively brief them, that the staff is biased toward environmentalists, and acts like a snotty high priesthood of Coastal Act zealots.

But at least four commissioners take no ex parte meetings, and manage to function. And commissioner-staff discord isn’t a reason to perpetuate a source of bad optics, if not outright corruption.

In fact, the commission voted, albeit narrowly, to support SB 1190. As Jackson put it to a Sacramento Bee editorial board member: “The solution isn’t to let the fox into the henhouse – it’s to make a sturdier henhouse.”

The Appropriations Committee bottled up SB 1190 after the Brown administration’s Natural Resources Agency suggested that it could cost up to $900,000 in extra staffing to make up for the free education commissioners get now through ex parte communication. That’s a stretch, not to mention jumping the gun.

Why should there be any cost? Indeed, Senate staff analyzed the bill and found no fiscal impact. If commissioners don’t trust staff members, they should replace them. Or question their ex parte sources from the dais, where all can equally weigh them. It’s less convenient, but so what? Other quasi-judicial boards in the state do without ex partes. Anything commissioners hear in private can be said at hearings or in public letters.

It’s a mark of how much public trust has been lost that the fiscal analysis, well-intentioned though it may have been, is being widely viewed as a political pretext. Lester’s firing was put in motion by Gov. Jerry Brown’s appointees to the commission, and a nonvoting commissioner is an undersecretary at the agency.

Assembly Appropriations Chairwoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, should let this bill go forward when it comes to a vote on Thursday. And if it passes, Brown should either sign it, or explain what his commissioners are up to. These murky waters are crying out for transparency.

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