CALIFORNIA

Important questions linger after firing of Coastal Commission chief

Questions big and small remain unanswered in the two weeks since the California Coastal Commission forced its widely admired executive director to walk the plank.

Among the bigger questions:

With a raft of gigantic, controversial projects coming before the commission in coming months, what's the plan to put back the pieces, rescue the demoralized and leaderless staff and find a replacement for Charles Lester?

One of those mega developments — an oil company confab's proposed Banning Ranch residential development in Newport Beach — was supposed to come up at next month's meeting but has been postponed.

The commission staff had recommended against building on the environmentally sensitive habitat in Newport Beach, but the commissioners haven't given up on the project.

But strategically speaking, a moment when so many people are saying that this commission is friendlier to developers than past boards probably didn't seem like the best time to plow ahead.

The commission is expected in March to start talking about who might replace Lester, who knew more about the Coastal Act that protects our 1,100-mile shore than any living person.

But thanks to the clumsy firing, who'd want the job?

For starters, I recommend that they find someone who'll ask the same common sense questions so many Californians are asking:

For instance, is it a good idea to have a sitting commissioner who is a paid consultant to companies that have a financial stake in commission decisions?

The clients listed on Commissioner Wendy Mitchell's consulting firm website include Carollo, an engineering firm involved in two desalination plant projects.

Mitchell has told me she recuses herself in any potential conflict, but I find myself uneasy about a sitting commissioner whose consulting website boasts:

"Strategy. Connections. Results."

I finally got results with Commissioner Mark Vargas. I wanted to know why he met in Ireland last year with U2 guitarist David Evans — "the Edge" — just days before voting to approve the musician's rock 'n' roll compound in Malibu.

He'd been brushing me off — actually acting as if I were invisible at the Morro Bay meeting at which he voted to fire Lester, for example.

But on Tuesday Vargas sent an email saying he was "already in the UK for work and Thanksgiving vacation, and this trip proved to be the most convenient time for me to meet with them."

Vargas said he paid for his own food, lodging and transportation, and for tickets to the U2 concert he attended the day he met with Evans.

It's still not clear why the meeting was necessary at all.

And I can't help but note how it seems a little easier for the rich and famous — or their lawyers and consultants — to get face time with commissioners, while the average Joe can't even find good contact information on the Coastal Commission website.

But at least Vargas finally responded.

I can't say the same for Commissioner Erik Howell, a Pismo Beach councilman.

I'd like to ask Howell about the $1,000 donation he got last September for his City Council reelection campaign from a woman by the name of Antoinette DeVargas. DeVargas works for McCabe & Co., which is run by Susan McCabe — probably the most powerful consultant in California.

McCabe was representing the developer of a residential development that would block ocean views. Less than two months after accepting the $1,000 donation from DeVargas to his City Council campaign, Coastal Commissioner Howell voted against the wishes of some constituents and in favor of the development.

Ed Henry, one of the angry Pismo residents, tells me he and some neighbors plan to file a complaint about that donation with the Fair Political Practices Commission as early as this week.

"I'm not an attorney and I can't decide whether it's legal or illegal," Henry said, " but I think there's enough there that it warrants a complaint."

Not only is DeVargas listed on McCabe's website as the operations manager who "oversees all company finances," said Henry, "but there's a public record that DeVargas is a 19-year domestic partner of Susan McCabe."

Henry was referring to a Desert Sun feature published this month. In the category "relationship status" the Sun notes that McCabe, vice president of the civil rights advocacy group Equality California, has had a partner, DeVargas, for 19 years.

The editor of the article told me McCabe had emailed that information to him.

McCabe and DeVargas did not respond to my latest round of interview requests.

I guess not everyone has heard the call, up and down the state, for more transparency in the way the Coastal Commission does business.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATstevelopez

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 24, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "NATURAL RESOURCES - Coastal fog still lingers - State commission's clumsy firing of Charles Lester leaves questions unanswered, with several controversial development plans waiting" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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