The California Coastal Commission has lost the trust of the public because of multiple Coastal-Act-violating decisions that turned out to be influenced by off-the-record lobbyist meetings. A bill to ban those very communications stalled, but has survived and heads to the Assembly for a vote.
Legal Influence Peddling: California’s Endangered Coastal Commission
How did our present California Coastal Commission lose sight of its mission to protect our coast? Well, once again, money talks.
Senate Bill 1190, that would ban private meetings between Coastal Commissioners and powerful lobbyists and lawyers, land developers and energy executives charged with pushing or pulling projects, gave the public accountability crowd hope of mitigating against the influence peddling. Guess what? The bill, by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), is now stalled and could die in the Assembly. Now is the time to call Assembly Appropriations Committee Chair Lorena Gonzalez and Senate President pro Tem Kevin de Leon, or Governor Brown himself, and let them know we need this bill.
“The ex parte process has been corrupted,” Hannah-Beth Jackson told [LA Times columnist Steve Lopez] in May, saying there’s a ton of money to be made on coastal development and private meetings give “undue influence” to those who want to build. “These discussions should not take place in private. That’s the whole point — that these are secret meetings, and you don’t meet in secret with an adjudicatory body that’s supposed to be impartial.”
Whose Coastal Commission?
Our California Natural Resources Agency claimed S.B. 1190 would necessitate new employees and expanses at hundreds of thousands of dollars to help Commissioners fill the void of late-night martini discussions and mid-golf-game-chats. Four other quite objective reports dispute this determination. The Coastal Commission has a significant staff that writes reports with recommendations. Public hearings bring out the nuance of opposing side’s arguments.
What is really going on?
Friend to Big Oil and Big Ag Jerry Brown’s woman in charge of Natural Resources is Janelle Beland, a non-voting member of the Coastal Commission. Ms. Beland, as I have written before, is a leader in enabling significant developer influence on the Commission, and weakening of Coastal Act protections for environmentally sensitive habitats. This is one further example of Commissioner Beland’s following the developer mandate to defeat reform at the Coastal Commission.
“I have never learned anything in an ex parte communication that I didn’t learn through staff reports and the public hearing,” said Mary Shallenberger, who has served on the commission for more than a decade.
Fighting Commission Influence Peddling in the Courts
Four local cases in point have been covered by the inestimable Dan Weikel in the Los Angeles Times regarding how these secret communications, called ex-partes, led to decisions rendered by Commissioners in their favor. Had Commissioners disclosed these communications in advance, they would be perfectly legal (though not necessarily fair, hence S.B. 1190). Keeping them secret, however, puts the legality of coastal development permit approvals in question.
One such alleged infraction involves The Ranch, a hotel renovation planned by Laguna Beach Golf and Bungalow LLC at scenic Aliso Canyon. Mark Fudge, Laguna resident, has accused panel member Wendy Mitchell of having illegal strategy sessioning with glad-handing developer Mark Christy before approval. Ms. Mitchell has many conflicts of interest and inappropriate votes on her record, but remains an at-will appointee of the aforementioned conflicted Governor.
I was on hand when Wendy Mitchell stood up in the 2015 Santa Monica hearing and stated that the Commission should ignore their now-canned Dr. Charles Lester’s staff’s recommendation of a developer’s fee of $1 million or more to mitigate loss of affordable rooms. Ms. Mitchell posited charging Mr. Christy a much smaller donation for studying (not building) a trail between the coast and Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park. Mitchell’s “compromise was near-unanimous. According to Susan Jordan of California Coastal Protection Network: “I was appalled by the failure to vigorously protect the public interest.”
Other Commissioner violations now in the courts include another controversial 30-unit Laguna Canyon housing project, approved that same ugly day in 2015. Superior Court Judge Kim G. Bunning ruled that six of ten commissioners did not publicly disclose their ex-parte communications.
Commissioners Behaving Badly: A Rogues Gallery
Let’s name some more names implicated in the second illegal-developer-schmooze incident at Laguna: Commissioner Greg Cox (also fined for ethics violation in SeaWorld vote), Martha McClure (also found Malibu wining and accepting donations from consultants with business before the Commission), Effie Turnbull-Sanders (atrocious environmental record), Mark Vargas (great pal to U2’s Malibu-McMansion-Guitarist), Erik Howell (more later on this compromised Gov. Brown appointee) and Steve Kinsey, the panel’s chairman (also more infractions to be listed). All failed to disclose their discussions at the swanky Portola Hotel and Spa in Monterey at a monthly meeting.
Two other inappropriate communications have been alleged in coastal development permits granted for the Silver Shoals housing project in Pismo Beach and a radioactive waste storage facility at San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant.
Commissioner Erik Howell is accused of negligent reporting in the proposed 19-unit housing project in Pismo Beach. Howell made a reverse-move during deliberations, dropping conditions related to view protections and public access, opposed by the developer. Howell, someone who Jerry Brown could remove with a signature, had been spotted the night before the approval dining with “the most influential person on the Commission,” lobbyist Susan McCabe, along with the developer. Incidentally, he has been accused of accepting campaign donations from McCabe’s domestic partner just two months prior to the vote.
The San Onofre lawsuit involves an egregious unanimous October 2015 approval allowing Southern California Edison to build a facility 100 feet from the ocean to store spent radioactive fuel pellets.
Commissioners again have been accused in San Diego Superior Court of violating state open meetings laws by participating in 15 ex-parte communications with Edison officials prior to the decision. The case remains outstanding.
Oh, let us not forget Chairman Steve Kinsey, in addition to his Laguna peccadillo, also failed to disclose two ex-parte communications with Newport Banning Ranch Oil/Wall Street developers of the largest remaining parcel of undeveloped coastal land left in Southern California. The lackluster compromised Chairman of a totally compromised commission had to recuse himself with disgrace added from one of the biggest decisions to hit the coast (maybe) a generation.
Strong evidence shows several arms of California government are in urgent need of major ethical fixes, beginning with the Public Utilities Commission, the Energy Commission and the Coastal Commission, to name just three powerful agencies. But even the smallest and most obvious reforms are consistently met with vetoes, legislative detours and other obfuscation despite the pious rhetoric of powerful politicians from Gov. Jerry Brown down to back-benchers in the Legislature. — Thomas D. Elias, LA Daily News
September’s Big Decisions for the Orange County Coast
Yes, coming this September 7-9 at Newport Beach Civic Center, two major OC coastal battles are on the agenda. Newport Banning Ranch would sprawl hotels and condos across protected Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas. Poseidon Resources would build an expensive, energy-intensive desalination plant just to its north in Huntington Beach that would impact beaches, wetlands, fisheries and water rates. Stay tuned!
Updated August 30, 2016