CALIFORNIA POLITICS

Coastal chief's ouster prompts bill to require transparency between lobbyists and panel

Reacting to the dismissal of the California Coastal Commission's executive director, Assembly members on Friday said they plan to introduce legislation to require people who lobby the commission to register with the state and disclose their clients with business pending before the powerful land-use agency.

Assemblyman Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay) and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) say the measure would close a loophole in the government code that exempts lobbyists on the commission level from reporting details of their activities to the public.

"They don't have to make the same disclosures as those who lobby other state agencies," Stone said. "This allows them to do more things behind the scenes.

"We need to close that loophole and treat them like everyone else," he added. "The public will then have more information about who is influencing whom."

Atkins and Stone say their measure also would require lobbyists to report to the public the payments they receive from clients and how much they spend on lobbying for specific matters that come before the commission.

The lawmakers say they are motivated by what they consider a lack of transparency surrounding the firing of the commission's executive director, Charles Lester, on Wednesday during the panel's meeting in Morro Bay.

The commission voted 7-5 to oust Lester in a closed session, with little public explanation, after hearing from more than 200 people who opposed the dismissal and virtually none who favored it.

Commissioners took the matter behind closed doors although their chief legal counsel, Chris Pederson, advised them that they were free to discuss any current issues involving Lester's performance because he had chosen a public hearing to defend himself.

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A Feb. 6 memo by Pederson said commissioners could deliberate and vote in open session and were allowed to discuss "their own current thoughts regarding the executive director and management of the agency, and any other issues that they think are relevant, aside from the executive director's past performance evaluations."

Mary Shallenberger, the longest-sitting member on the commission and one of the five who did not vote to fire him, called the panel's closed-door action "a total disregard for the public — the worst I've seen in 40 years."

"It was shameful and despicable for a public agency charged with protecting our coast," Shallenberger said.

Unlike other regulatory agencies in California, members of the Coastal Commission can be lobbied directly about pending decisions.

State law allows commissioners to communicate or meet privately with interested parties, including project applicants and their representatives, about business before the commission as long as they disclose the contact and what it was about.

Applicants are required to identify to the commission any consultants they have retained to represent them. But those representatives — referred to as agents rather than lobbyists — do not have to register as they would if they were lobbying in the state Legislature.

Commissioners also must file disclosures describing each "ex-parte" communication, including the date, time and location, the people involved and a "complete description of the content of the communication" and copies of any written information they received.

Environmental groups, supporters of the agency and members of the public confronted commissioners again Thursday as they continued their regular meeting. They demanded answers and said they were not satisfied with commissioners' explanations of why they secretly discussed Lester's fate.

"I agree with a lot of what I heard in the public testimony," Atkins said. "The public feels like we will have to pay closer attention to the commission and the determinations made by various commissioners. Given what happened this week, we may be able to get this done."

Atkins noted that former state Sen. Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego) introduced a similar disclosure bill for the Coastal Commission in 2005, but it was defeated.

The new bill now has at least 10 co-authors. Stone and Atkins said the measure, which is gaining support, will probably be introduced early next week.

"This is the sunshine on the coast bill and just a precursor to what is necessary to take back the coast," said Steven Blank, who served on the commission from 2007 to 2013. "Given the spin developer agents on the commission are giving, the bill is even more important."

Blank noted that lobbyists appeared to be texting and e-mailing commissioners on the dais during the public hearing in which Lester defended his record.

"It happened all the time when I was on the commission," he said. "Today, it is not against the law, but again it raises the issue of what is in the public interest."

Susan Jordan, director of the California Coastal Protection Network, also praised the proposed legislation and said it was decades overdue.

"We've watched billions of dollars in projects go before the commission, but there is no transparency about the lobbying process," she said. "It's something that should be public knowledge."

For now, the coastal watchdog agency will be run by its two top deputies, Jack Ainsworth and Susan Hansch.

The panel is expected to discuss plans for a search for a new executive director at its next meeting in Santa Monica in March.

Commissioner Carole Groom, who voted against firing Lester, said his ouster will present "very special challenges" in recruiting a replacement with the environmental credentials, knowledge of California law and coastal policy experience necessary to lead the agency.

She said potential candidates "will take a good look at what happened. God, a 7-5 vote after hundreds of people spoke out against it? It's going to be a harder time to find somebody of great quality."

Weeks before the vote, at least one environmental leader was approached about possibly replacing Lester.

Mark Gold, associate vice chancellor for environment and sustainability at UCLA, confirmed that he was called over month ago about leading the agency, but was not interested and turned it down immediately.

"I said, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" recalled Gold, who declined to say who approached him in the confidential phone call.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 13, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Bill takes aim at coast panel - Director's ouster prompts measure to require transparency in how interest groups appeal to the agency." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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