Join me at the circus, I mean, a California Coastal Commission hearing

It's becoming harder and harder for me to describe in believable terms what goes on at a California Coastal Commission hearing.

But I'm going to give it my best shot.

In the past week the circus came to Santa Monica, where demonstrators, still angry about last month's firing of the agency's Executive Director Charles Lester, booed commissioners and called on them to resign.

"Our Coast is Not for Sale," said one sign.

In the ensuing follies, Commissioner Erik Howell left Thursday's hearing moments before the announcement that a complaint had been filed against him with the Fair Political Practices Commission. The complaint was over a $1,000 donation to him from the business and domestic partner of the state's most powerful hired gun on coastal projects, including a development Howell voted on less than two months after receiving the money.

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Commissioner Martha McClure accepted a $500 donation a few years back from the same person who donated to Howell, but told me she thought the donor and the lobbyist were just friends, rather than a couple. McClure didn't find it unusual that the donor, who lives in Marina del Rey, would write a check to McClure, who was running for county supervisor 730 miles away in Del Norte County.

Commissioner Wendy Mitchell, perhaps responding to the column in which I noted she's a consultant to companies with business before the commission, announced in the midst of a rambling spat with another commissioner that she had dropped two clients from her roster. She claimed she had recused herself from voting on matters involving those clients, and I'll revisit that in a moment.

Commissioner Roberto Uranga whined about how difficult it is to pick the next executive director when commissioners don't have basic information, such as a budget. Can someone please direct Mr. Uranga to the agency's website, where that information has been available to the entire world since early January?

And Commissioner Mark Vargas, who for days refused to answer my questions about him attending a U2 concert in Ireland last year and meeting with band member David Evans shortly before voting to approve Evans' massive five-mansion compound in Malibu, is now touting transparency on his Twitter account. In other news, he spoke in Spanish for several minutes at the meeting, lest anyone doubt the sincerity of his oft-repeated commitment to inclusivity.

Vargas and others had said they fired Lester partly because his staff wasn't diverse enough, with minorities accounting for just under 30%. But isn't it more important to ensure coastal access for all, regardless of income or skin color? Lester worked closely with civil and environmental activists and minorities committed to that very goal, and they praised his work last month on the day Vargas voted to dump Lester.

The commissioners who fired the world's leading authority on the Coastal Act claimed he wasn't a good leader. But as they struggled in Santa Monica to figure out how to find a replacement, it became more evident that the leadership problem was with the commission. And who'd want the job now, after Lester's observation that the commission "seems to be more interested in and receptive to the concerns of the development community as a general rule?"

This brings us back to Pismo Beach, where Erik Howell is a city councilman in addition to serving on the Coastal Commission as an appointee of Gov. Jerry Brown, who has snored through this entire debacle.

Some Pismo residents were irked last year by a proposal for a small residential development because of a parking issue and because it would block ocean views from the highway. They say that Howell, too, had issues with the project in his council capacity, but told them it was sure to win Coastal Commission approval because the developer was represented by the all-powerful Susan McCabe.

On the eve of the vote on that project, Pismo residents saw Howell and McCabe dining together. The next day, Howell cast a vote in favor of the project, which prevailed, 6-5.

Angry residents then discovered that Antoinette DeVargas, who listed her occupation as operations manager at McCabe & Co., had made a $1,000 donation to Howell's city council campaign several weeks earlier. They did a little more investigating and learned that McCabe has said in a published report that she and DeVargas have been in a relationship for 19 years.

Alan Stocker of Pismo Beach attended the hearing Thursday to argue that Howell's vote was tainted, and he should have recused himself. As he spoke, he referenced the "empty chair" vacated by Howell, who had conveniently disappeared.

"I respectfully ask that you uphold the integrity of the public process by postponing any action on this project until the FPPC has adjudicated the filed complaint," Stocker told the commission.

The commission unanimously rejected that idea.

A dejected Stocker told me he thought it was cowardly of Howell to have disappeared. Howell, McCabe and DeVargas did not respond to my requests for interviews.

Attorneys tell me the DeVargas donation may not be a problem because she did not personally lobby the commission.

But legal or not, this smells worse than a bucket of dead Pismo clams. And the complaint against Howell claimed that he had voted on several other projects represented by McCabe after receiving the donation from DeVargas.

"This is a small matter, but it provides kind of a window into the cozy relationships between agents and commissioners and the lack of a level playing field," said Stocker.

That brings me back to Commissioner Mitchell, who did not readily respond to some of the questions I asked her on Wednesday and Thursday about her consulting business.

She said she had "terminated my relationship" with PG&E and an engineering company named Carollo. I asked why they were still listed on her consulting business website as clients, and she emailed an answer:

"I'm not techy enough to figure out how to change my website."

I asked if Carollo was still a client in February 2015 when Mitchell voted in favor of a Santa Barbara desalination project Carollo was a part of, and if so, shouldn't she have recused herself?

She didn't answer, so I asked again.

"I was not aware that Carollo was a subcontractor," she responded, "and ended my relationship with them as soon as I became aware of their involvement."

Mitchell said she terminated the relationship on March 1, but didn't say what year.

When I pressed, she said 2016.

So by her explanation, she learned only a couple of weeks ago that one of her own clients was involved in a project she voted on a year ago.

I asked Mitchell, who called for "more openness and transparency" in an op-ed published last month in the Sacramento Bee, how much she'd been paid by Carollo in that time.

She wouldn't answer.

The commission meets monthly, moving up and down the coast like a traveling road show.

Comedy, tragedy, it's got everything, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Twitter: @LATstevelopez


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A version of this article appeared in print on March 13, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Coastal Commission circus" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe