Coastal Commission Reforms Badly Needed

Deborah A. Sivas 1

Earlier this month, political appointees on the Coastal Commission voted to oust Executive Director Charles Lester, a longtime public servant committed to carrying out the values enshrined in the Coastal Act. They did so without a credible explanation and behind closed doors. They did so despite an outpouring of public and staff support for Lester’s leadership and against a tide of evidence demonstrating his significant accomplishments. They did so while indignantly denying accusations that pro-development interests orchestrated the coupthe same interests that tried to remove Lester’s predecessor.

What is going on?

In response to public alarm over unchecked coastal developmentincluding plans for sprawling residential communities and a string of nuclear power plantsCalifornians created the Coastal Commission by voter initiative in 1972. With passage of the Coastal Act in 1976, the Legislature made the commission permanent. The law’s twin touchstones are protection of public access and conservation of coastal resources.

Since then, the agency’s professional staff has tried to remain faithful to the voters’ mandate. As fierce watchdogs for the coast, they are frequently at odds with wealthy landowners, celebrities and developers.

Firing Lester sends an unmistakable signal to any future director. Good-government advocates ought to fire back.

First up is AB 2002, introduced on Tuesday by Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins. Her authorship is noteworthy because she appointed four of the 12 commissioners; the governor and the Senate split the other eight. To Atkins’ apparent dismay, some of her appointees joined forces with all four of the governor’s to terminate Lester.

That voting coalition is particularly ironic because Gov. Jerry Brown played a pivotal in securing passage of the law during his first tenure as governor.

AB 2002 would amend the Political Reform Act of 1974 to require that any person communicating with commissioners about an action needing commission approval must register as a lobbyist. Some may be shocked to learn that this isn’t already the law. While several legislators co-sponsored AB 2002, passage won’t be easy; it requires a two-thirds voteand, critically, the governor’s signature.

Sunshine for lobbyists is a necessary but insufficient step. The rules still allow permit applicants to engage in ex parte communications with commissioners as long as they check a box on a form. Imagine if those rules applied to judges.

Prohibiting all ex parte communications with commissioners about pending matters is the better rule and won’t hamper legitimate business; project applicants could still communicate with staff to design their proposals.

But there’s a larger structural problem. The commission, like many others, relies on a revolving door of political appointees. Like California’s well-meaning voter initiative process, it can allow special interests to co-opt it.

Appointments have become a reward for those who trade in status and connections. Unable to capture the commission’s professional staff, developers target political appointees instead.

The issue isn’t developers wining and dining commissioners; strict rules prohibit accepting perks from permit applicants. The coin of the realm is access and influence. And solutions aren’t obvious.

We might start by changing the eligibility criteria for commissioners. How about designating half of the seats for ordinary citizens with relevant training or other actual qualifications?

Of course, many commissioners work to protect coastal values, putting in long hours for no compensation. But when they do the bidding of the rich and famous without transparency or accountability, something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

This op-ed was written for the San Jose Mercury News and ran in the paper on February 19, 2016 .



1 Response to Coastal Commission Reforms Badly Needed
  1. Debby: You hit it on the nose — the Lester affair is politics at its worst.
    FYI: I’ve been “emeritused off the Earthjustice Board.
    Stay in touch and I hope your plan works


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