A bill to stop the private lobbying of members of the California Coastal Commission is heading for a crucial vote in the state Senate as soon as this week. The measure is an important one that deserves to pass, but its future is uncertain because the powerful and often wealthy interests who benefit most from such behind-the-scenes communication are aligned in opposition.
SB 1190, by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), would ban private meetings and communication, such as emails and texts, between the commissioners and the people trying to influence them during their proceedings. It's an absolutely necessary step to restore the public's trust in the Coastal Commission.
The bill has its roots in the recent uproar over the removal of the commission's executive director, Charles Lester, earlier this year. That high-handed and unwise decision led many to criticize the fairness of the commission's proceedings and to question the practice of private, or ex parte, communication. Some suspect that pro-development advocates privately pressured the commissioners to fire Lester.
A majority of the current commissioners support a ban, as do 17 former commissioners and a number of environmental and citizen groups. Even Sierra Club California supports the bill, though it also uses ex parte communication. Opponents include the California Chamber of Commerce, other business and development groups and lobbyists who regularly meet in private with commissioners.
A ban makes sense for a number of reasons, the foremost of which is that the commission is not a legislative body but a quasi-judicial board. Its mission is to review projects and determine whether they conform to the California Coastal Act. The 12 voting members are appointed by the governor, the speaker of the Assembly and the Senate president pro tem; they are not elected by the public. It is traditional and appropriate for judicial bodies to receive testimony only in open proceedings. Ask a judge — any judge. It is standard procedure that the defense and prosecution present information to the judge and jury openly and in each other's presence. Under the bill, coastal commissioners still would be able to receive memos from developers or environmental groups explaining why they should vote a certain way, but those memos would go immediately into the public record. There still would be hearings in which all sides can plead their case to commissioners. If one side isn't willing to say something on the record, perhaps it's because it wouldn't stand up to scrutiny.
Besides, other state commissions ban ex parte communications during adjudicative proceedings and don’t seem to have a problem with it. These include the California Air Resources Board, the State Water Resources Control Board, the California Energy Commission and even the California Public Utilities Commission (though the PUC has other ex parte problems that Legislators should take up this session).
Under current rules, commissioners are required to file reports on their ex parte meetings. But those reports are insufficient, often just one-line notes that fail to explain what was discussed or what arguments were made.
Ex parte communications are inherently unfair because commissioners can hold private meetings with whomever they like, and deny them to others. This creates a tilted playing field that has deservedly cast suspicion on the integrity of the commission. In the end, it is those lobbyists with the time and money to travel up and down the state to meet with commissioners who reap the advantages of this special relationship.
The Coastal Commission has a vital responsibility to balance the protection of the coast against the immense pressure to develop. It is imperative that the commission deliberate in the open and remain as far above suspicion as possible.