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One way to save California's coast: Save a bill that bans private meetings with developers

Today, as I continue my summer trip down California’s 1,100 miles of coastline, I was going to tell you about a developer who has spent 24 years trying to build a hotel on a Monterey Bay sand dune  and what he thinks about the regulatory hurdles he’s been jumping.

Or I was going to tell you about a woman who gave up a lucrative career years ago to work out of a small nook in her Santa Barbara kitchen, running a nonprofit that monitors coastal development.

But I’m going to hold off on those because something else has come up, as I first mentioned in my Sunday column.

If you’ve got a good pair of rubber boots, now would be a good time to put ’em on because to get through this coastal story, you’ll need to wade through muck.

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A perfectly good reform bill was advancing smoothly through the Legislature, aimed at making the business of the California Coastal Commission more transparent.

But now the bill looks comatose and the plug could be pulled Aug. 11, killing its chances this year.

SB 1190 by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) would ban private meetings between coastal commissioners and those who want to lobby for or against any given project. A hotel, for instance, or residential development, or a power  plant … anything.

Why a ban?

For starters, the vast majority of those private, or ex parte meetings as they’re known, are between developers and commissioners. This leaves opponents of projects at a disadvantage, and it can leave the public in the dark.

Commissioners are required to file a  public record of those private meetings, but if you’ve been following The Times’ coverage, you know there are a few kinks in the system.

Sometimes commissioners fail to file accounts of those meetings.

Sometimes their descriptions of the meetings are written not by the commissioners themselves but by the lobbying agents who represent the developers. That alone is odious enough to ban the meetings altogether.

And sometimes the commissioners’ accounts of private meetings are anything but complete and comprehensive, as required.  Such as when Commissioner Mark Vargas provided a two-  or three-sentence account of his private meeting with U2 guitarist David Evans, in Ireland, just days before voting in favor of the musician’s five-mansion Malibu compound.

“The ex parte process has been corrupted,” Jackson told me 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.”

The bill sailed through the state Senate with wind at its back.

But now it’s run aground in the Assembly.

Why?

In politics, there’s often an official explanation, and the way to identify it as such is that it smells. Bad. 

In this case,  Jackson’s bill has been at least temporarily shelved because of a committee report saying that if it is implemented, it could cost the state up to $900,000 a year.

As the argument goes, that would be needed to pay for up to six employees who would gather information on projects for commissioners.

Here’s where I’d like to shout out a word for muck — male bovine muck.

For one thing, project applicants and opponents would still be able to provide written arguments on projects and could still speak at public hearings. The commission’s staff would investigate applications as it does now and recommend whether projects meet the requirements of the Coastal Act.

Also, as my colleague Dan Weikel has reported, four other studies have concluded that Jackson’s bill will have no fiscal effect.

And I wonder if anyone thought of this: The Coastal Commission has been sued at least four times over improper contact between commissioners and permit applicants. That kind of thing can cost a fortune. 

One more reason  to hold your nose on the official explanation for tabling the bill is that the $900,000 figure came from a staffer in the state’s Natural Resources Agency.

So what?

I’ll tell you so what.

Janelle Beland is the undersecretary of Natural Resources, and she is Gov. Jerry Brown’s nonvoting but powerful appointee to the Coastal Commission. At times, it seems like she is running the show. 

There’s lots of speculation among key players about what the governor is up to in this matter concerning the state’s most iconic and, arguably valuable resource.

When someone asks me what’s going on, I tell them I don’t know —  mainly because the governor has refused repeated interview requests.

The governor hasn’t talked publicly about the commission, going all the way back to February when commissioners fired Charles Lester, the executive director beloved by staff and hundreds of public officials and advocates.

So most of us who care about protecting our state’s beaches, coves, dunes and wetlands are left with questions — some of them admittedly loaded: 

Is there the slightest chance that a $900,000 fiscal impact claim would have been made without Beland or her boss, Natural Resources Agency Secretary John Laird, knowing about it and telling the governor — if he didn’t know about it already? 

Will Brown sign Jackson’s bill if it ever gets out of its holding cell and onto his desk? Or does having it stalled this way conveniently spare him the scorn that would come his way if he didn’t sign a good-government reform measure so clearly in the best interest of the coast and the public?

Does the governor think projects like the two gigantic and controversial billion-dollar plans before the commission — a desalination plant in Huntington Beach and a hotel-residential mini-city in Orange County — are such good ideas that commissioners deserve to hear about them in private meetings with developers? 

Finally, is it possible that the governor has for some reason decided that the historically independent Coastal Commission and the Coastal Act he signed into law 40 years ago are no longer such good ideas and need to be quietly hobbled? 

I tried but could not get ahold of Beland and her bosses Tuesday. 

Meanwhile, time is running out if the bill is to be saved. The full Assembly Appropriations Committee will decide Aug. 11 whether to rescue Jackson’s bill from its holding cell or sentence it to death. 

If you want to weigh in on the matter, shoot a message to committee Chair Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) on her website or call (916) 319-2080.

Or you can tweet her @LorenaAD80 with #saveyourcoast. 

Getting back to the governor, my message is simple:

This coast is ours, meaning everyone’s. The business of preserving it, protecting fragile sea and plant life, and increasing public access regardless of income or lobbying clout, is a sacred duty.

And it’s business that has to be conducted in the open, not in private. 

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Weigh in at @JerryBrownGov  #SaveYourCoast and (916 445-2841) or email governor@governor.ca.gov.

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