Lawmakers want disclosure of Coastal Commission lobbying

Interest groups seeking to influence members of the California Coastal Commission would have to disclose the use and payment of professional lobbyists under legislation introduced at the state Capitol on Tuesday.

"There's a loophole in current law," Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) said at a news conference with a group of colleagues.

The legislation would make the 44-year old coastal agency subject to the same reporting requirements as those that already exist for lobbying the Legislature or other government agency. Under current rules, there is only limited disclosure of paid lobbyists who meet with the panel's appointed commissioners.

"It's become very, very clear that the influence that certain lobbyists have on the Coastal Commission far outstrips what the general public has," said Assemblyman Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay), a co-author of the bill.

The legislation comes less than a week after the firing of Charles Lester, the agency's former executive director. Environmental groups accused commissioners of being overly influenced by lobbyists working on behalf of developers, and suggested those kinds of connections ultimately paved the way for the dismissal of the more environmentally aligned Lester.

The outgoing speaker used her Twitter account during the commission hearing on Lester's fate to apologize for her selections to the panel. Atkins told reporters on Tuesday that she was specifically disappointed in Commissioner Mark Vargas, one of the seven members who voted to remove the executive director.

"My strong discussion was objectivity," she said in describing her vetting of Vargas when appointing him to the commission last year. Atkins characterized Vargas' comments during last week's hearing as a "pretty canned reaction."

In an email Tuesday night, Vargas responded by saying that "public policy is hard work and sometimes requires making decisions that aren't popular" and that he "will continue to approach each project before the commission with complete objectivity and the utmost respect for the laws that govern this state."

The lobbying disclosure bill would require a supermajority vote of each house of the Legislature, along with the signature of Gov. Jerry Brown, to take effect.

"The governor will closely consider any bill that reaches his desk," Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said when asked about the legislation.

One of the commissioners who voted to fire Lester, Wendy Mitchell, said in a written statement Tuesday that she supports the new effort to require disclosure of paid lobbying.

"The public needs to know more about how decisions are made at the commission, and who is working to influence those decisions," her statement read. She also suggested the legislation should go further to include more transparency about communications between advocates and the agency's staffers.

"It's clear that we need more transparency when it comes to workings of the Coastal Commission and its staff," Mitchell said.

Other legislation is soon to follow. Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-San Rafael) said he would introduce a bill this week requiring a one-year ban on registered lobbying by any commissioner after leaving the panel. That's the same rule that applies to members of the Legislature who leave office and then seek employment as a lobbyist.

"Where is there accountability with commissioners?" Levine said. "These bills are an effort to hold the commissioners accountable."

The legislation to require lobbying disclosure would not, as it's now drafted, apply to communication with the Coastal Commission's staff, only with the appointed commissioners. And while critics last week charged that the appointees were often too deferential to lobbyists who work for coastal development projects, lawmakers said they intend for the proposed law to apply to any paid advocacy.

"I was lobbied by paid lobbyists on many different sides, for many different interests," said Stone, who served as a coastal commissioner during his time as a Santa Cruz County supervisor.

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