CALIFORNIA

When it comes to the California Coastal Commission, 'cozy' is a four-letter word

Last week, standing in ankle-deep water, I overturned a seashell and a slimy eel slithered up, and then another and another.

Now, after a week of looking into the murky waters at the California Coastal Commission, where an attempt is underway to fire the director, I'm up to my elbows in sea serpents.

When it comes to protecting the greatest 1,100-mile stretch of beach on the planet, we'd all like to think decisions are made without politics or money getting in the way of good judgment.

But come on. We know better.

UPDATE: Coastal Commission fires Charles Lester in a 7-5 vote >>

"I think what has developed over time is a culture of the cozy," said Pedro Nava, a former state legislator and onetime member of the commission.

He did not mean "cozy" in a good way. He meant that some of the state's most powerful lobbyists, representing some of the state's wealthiest people and corporations, are too close to the decision makers.

"The only representatives who can afford to attend each and every coastal commission meeting up and down the coast, and create relationships with the commissioners, are those who are paid by the big developers," Nava said.

To make matters worse, some of these schmoozers- and browbeaters-for-hire are called "agents" and are not technically lobbyists. If they were, which they should be, they'd have to register and report on exactly who's paying them and how much.

Public access to beaches is sometimes at stake when billion-dollar projects are proposed, said Nava. He thinks the public has a right to know exactly who is paying whom and how much, and that the information should be available to the public on the commission website.

Nava left the commission in 2004 but recalls feeling uneasy about one particular gathering, while he was in office, at the exclusive Montage Laguna Beach.

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That's a questionable choice of lodging for commissioners, even though the hotel provided a discount for state employees — especially since that hospitality followed approval of the hotel project by the commission.

"Nobody else got a state rate, but guess who else could afford to stay there," Nava said. "The agents for the developers. The grass-roots and community-based organizations had to find rooms miles away, which meant that in the evening, when you were in the cocktail lounge, the only people who weren't staff and commissioners were the agents for developers. What happens is you become influenced and affected by all those people."

This astute observation comes as a throng of environmentalists and commission critics are railing against what has been called an attempted coup on executive director Charles Lester by commissioners with the most pro-development voting records — some of whom happen to be personal appointees of Gov. Jerry Brown.

I should note that one anti-Lester commissioner keeps insisting to me that neither the governor nor the developers' cadre of lobbyists, or "agents," have anything to do with the Lester matter.

They say it's all about Lester's performance.

Brown's staff, meanwhile, insists he has had no involvement and has not taken a position.

But some coast watchers suspect that Brown has not been fond of the commission going back to the 1970s, when then-girlfriend Linda Ronstadt wrangled with regulators over a permit for a project at her Malibu home, and Brown called the commission "bureaucratic thugs."

Be that as it may, at least three state legislators are now speaking up in support of Lester, including Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego).

"My view is that Lester is balanced and fair," said Atkins. "I'm concerned that the attempt to oust him is politically motivated as opposed to being about management issues, and I'm concerned that an effort is underway to undermine the objectivity of the commission."

Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-San Rafael) said the commissioners have "disregarded any number of staff recommendations" on proposed developments and "should be taking a close look at themselves" before pointing fingers at Lester.

Assemblyman Mark Stone (D-Santa Cruz), a former coastal commissioner, also came to the defense of Lester, whose future could be decided Feb. 10 at a hearing in Morro Bay.

NEWSLETTER: Get the day's top headlines from Times Editor Davan Maharaj >>

"It's not a performance issue," he told me.

He calls Lester "a consensus builder" who has done "a good job working with local jurisdictions to get projects moving forward but still be compatible with the values of protecting coastal resources."

Atkins and Stone both said they're considering legislation to create greater transparency in the way the commission does business, including a possible bill requiring "agents" who lobby the panel to register as what they are: lobbyists. Past attempts, by the way, have failed.

Another dark corner of the operation, crying out for reform, involves what are known as ex parte communications. "One-sided" kind of describes the meaning of the term.

Anyone who wants to weigh in on a development issue can request an ex parte contact with a commissioner so that parties with other views know that such a meeting occurred. But guess who benefits most from that arrangement — at least in the minds of critics.

"By and large the commissioners are working with and listening to people who are professionals and are paid to travel up and down the state, and the public is at a huge disadvantage," said former Coastal Commissioner Sara Wan.

"I don't have the money to go flying up and down the coast wining and dining commissioners," said Stefanie Sekich-Quinn of the Surfrider Foundation.

Here's another problem: Commissioners have to report any ex parte communication on a given proposal and say what was discussed, but they often don't provide specifics. And they don't have to indicate whether they declined ex parte requests from those with differing views on a project.

I can't think of a good reason that shouldn't be changed immediately, with all such information posted on the website for all to see.

Sekich-Quinn said she requested to speak to three commissioners last fall on a Broad Beach reclamation project in Malibu, but got no responses. Then, at the hearing, those three commissioners reported one or two ex-parte communications with the other side.

In the end, the commissioners voted against a public access provision Sekich-Quinn and others had wanted.

That access point would have been on public trust land, and still the Broad Beach residents — including some of Hollywood's biggest names — prevailed.

If there is justice, or karma, an infestation of eels will soon hit Broad Beach.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

@lATstevelopez

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A version of this article appeared in print on January 31, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Cozy, but not in a good way" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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