The Venetians were as perplexed as anyone in the room last week when a member of the California Coastal Commission suddenly began speaking in Spanish at a public hearing in Santa Monica.
Commissioner Mark Vargas offered no preface or explanation. He simply launched into Spanish and was several lines into a speech about his favorite beach — Lechuza, in Malibu — when Kevin Keresey of Venice spoke up from the audience.
"I'd like an interpreter," said Keresey, who was sitting with two Venice neighbors.
Sounded reasonable enough. But this is the Coastal Commission.
"So would all of the Spanish community in California," Vargas responded, in English.
"Fine," Keresey said.
"And you're excluding them," said a defiant Vargas.
Vargas continued in Spanish for another couple of minutes.
When he was done, another spectator complained about the language barrier.
Commission Chairman Steve Kinsey weighed in, saying that Vargas could speak directly to a specific community if he so pleased.
As it happens, Keresey and Venice neighbors Robin Rudisill and Ilana Marosi say they were at the meeting to speak up about what they saw as the gentrification and mansionization that have made their coastal enclave less inclusive than it once was.
But why couldn't Vargas have later translated what he said into English for the sake of the vast majority of attendees, they wondered?
The Venetians approached the dais during the break to ask Vargas, and to see if he would tell them what they had missed.
"I said, 'Are you always going to do your comments in Spanish in the future, and are you going to bring a translator?' " Rudisill recalls. "Then he said something about, 'How do you think my people feel?' "
Keresey didn't have much better luck with Vargas.
"He started yelling at me really fast, in Spanish," says Keresey. "I said 'Stop.' There are no Mexican people left in Venice. They've all been kicked out."
At that point, say the Venetians, things turned ugly. So much so that two days later, on the last day of the hearing, Marosi stepped to the microphone to report what was said by Vargas in that brief conversation.
"Excuse me in advance and please block your ears, but I'm going to repeat Commissioner Vargas' words verbatim," Marosi told the commissioners.
"His exact quote: '[F] off. I'm tired of listening to your [F'ing BS] and get the [F] out of here...'
Is this the appropriate temperament and maturity for a commissioner?"
Later at that same meeting, Vargas responded.
"I want to take this opportunity to apologize for using foul language during a private conversation I had with some members of the public that were here earlier," Vargas said.
But it wasn't a terribly convincing mea culpa, and you had to wonder if Vargas would have said anything at all if he had not just been shamed by Marosi's public remarks. In fact, Vargas all but blamed the episode on Keresey. He brought up Keresey's comment about Mexicans being driven out of Venice and said "institutionalized racism still is a problem...."
Keresey said that if Vargas was calling him a racist, it was unfair.
"That's the worst insult," he said.
Here's how Marosi responded when I asked what she thought about the apology:
"What apology? He didn't address us or me. He didn't look at us. He basically just excused it away and shunted the blame back on us, or I guess" Keresey.
I asked to speak to Vargas about this and other matters, and he emailed to say he was tending to a family matter, but would then "be happy to consider a sit-down interview."
I'll take that as a "maybe."
In the meantime, if you ask me, I'd say that Vargas threw his little F-bomb tantrum because he doesn't know how else to respond to lingering public anger over a mess he helped create.
He often yammers on about looking out for the little guy, but this is the commissioner who traveled to Ireland in November for a U2 concert and meeting with band member David Evans — "the Edge" — just days before he joined the unanimous vote to approve Evans' Malibu project: Five sprawling homes on a gorgeous coastal ridgeline that the commission should be preserving.
He initially blew off my questions about that meeting, which was arranged by the state's most powerful developer-loving consultant. He offered only a two-sentence explanation for the visit on a form that requires "complete and comprehensive" accounts.
Of course Vargas has since branded himself a crusader for total transparency on Twitter.
And in February he voted to fire Charles Lester, the widely admired head of the coastal commission's staff.
Vargas says Lester didn't diversify his staff quickly enough, and in Spanish last week, he said there's now a chance to choose a new leader more committed to access for all. But if Lester actually had shortcomings in this regard, Vargas hasn't spelled them out in full, nor has he indicated what his own plan for improvement might entail.
In fact, Lester worked closely with environmental groups committed to access for all, and Vargas has spent several weeks now bashing those organizations for their lack of diversity.
One of his favorite targets is the Surfrider Foundation. That nonprofit gave Vargas one of its lowest conservation ratings. It also fought for guaranteed public access as part of a Malibu beach restoration project last year.
Vargas and the commission rejected the bulk of that plea.
Thank you, Mr. Inclusivity.
Vargas has a puffed-up manner that reminds you of someone you once knew, and then you realize who. It was the kid standing ankle deep in the wading pool telling you what a great swimmer he was.
"I think he needs to be removed," Marosi said.
Rudisill made calls to officials in Sacramento to ask that something be done about Vargas. She was referred to the office of Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, whose predecessor appointed Vargas to a new four-year term that began last summer.
Rudisill says she was told that someone would get back to her by the end of the week, but the options are limited given Coastal Act requirements.
I've got something I'd like to say about that.
But I'd be repeating Vargas.
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