Reeling from Gov. George Deukmejian's cuts in the California Coastal Commission's budget and unable to muster enough votes in the Legislature to restore them, a coalition of environmentalists has decided to help finance a public opinion poll in hopes of gaining ammunition to save the embattled agency.
The poll, which will attempt to assess Californians' attitudes toward the initiative process, is being put together by the San Francisco-based Center for the Study of Law and Politics. It will cost the environmentalists $15,000 to include questions in the poll about coastal protection. So far, $10,000 has been raised.
The findings, due this fall, are expected to help shape the strategy employed by environmentalists as they seek to shore up the commission's steadily eroding political consensus.
"Maybe the commission's in such deep water with people that it's time to start again," publisher Melvin Lane, the commission's first chairman, said during an interview.
"We're just trying to figure out where we stand," Lane added. "We might as well find out where the weak spots were. Somehow, we have to distinguish what it is people don't like, what they're concerned about on the coast. There may be other ways to protect it."
Deukmejian, long an opponent of the commission, has said the budget cuts are justified because fewer regional offices are necessary as local coastal plans are adopted.
The first phase of the poll will survey attitudes toward the commission and coastal issues among 100 politically active Californians, including local and state officeholders, developers and lobbyists. The second phase will sample a cross-section of Californians.
If the poll shows widespread public support, environmentalists say they will be armed with fresh information with which to lobby the governor and firm up resolve by shaky legislators.
On the other hand, findings of public apathy or significant opposition would suggest changes in political strategy.
Handful of People
Richard Goldman, a San Francisco environmental activist who is contributing $5,000 for the poll, said, "If it's found that the public doesn't really care, I don't think a handful of people can sway this thing."
Still, Goldman said he is optimistic. Despite the absence of a significant public outcry against the governor's budget cuts, Goldman said he doubts that there has been a dramatic shift in public opinion since 1972, when 55.2% of the voters approved Proposition 20, the coastal protection initiative.
The poll was ordered after a group of environmentalists met in San Francisco at a luncheon at the request of Michael Fischer, the Coastal Commission's former executive director.
Besides Fischer and Lane, those attending included Walter McGuire, founder and president of the San Francisco-based Center for the Study of Law and Politics; Ann Notthoff of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Coastal Commission Chairman Melvin Nutter.
Also attending were Duane Garrett, a San Francisco attorney who was co-chairman of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's campaign for governor in 1982; former state Sen. Alan Sieroty (D-Los Angeles); Lucy Blake of the League of Conservation Voters, and Justice William Newsom of the state Court of Appeal in San Francisco.
Hold the Line
Meanwhile, another group of environmentalists in Southern California has also been seeking ways to hold the line against further political assaults on the Coastal Commission.
Press conferences were recently held in five cities throughout the state to showcase support for the commission by members of city councils and county boards of supervisors, the groups Deukmejian claims endorse his anti-commission policy.
"We looked at who's already spoken to the governor about this," Notthoff of the Natural Resources Defense Council said recently.
"The Legislature has already made its desires known. The environmentalists have blasted the governor. . . . So we looked at some segment that hasn't in any concerted way voiced its support . . . and we looked at local government," she said.
So far, however, only 50 of more than 300 members of coastal city councils and county boards of supervisors have agreed to sign a joint letter to the governor.
Support has not been sought from the two most influential local-government lobbying groups in Sacramento, the League of California Cities and the County Supervisors Assn. of California.
Neither the league nor the supervisors group took a stand during budget negotiations on the governor's Coastal Commission cuts.
There is also preliminary talk of a campaign--either through the Legislature or by an initiative--to place a proposed state constitutional amendment on the ballot that would guarantee funding for coastal protection. Such an idea was advanced last week by Los Angeles City Councilman Marvin Braude.
"Most people don't think an initiative is a really viable option," said Betsy Reifsnider of the Sierra Club's Los Angeles chapter.
"I don't think, given the current political climate, that we can do much more at this point than a holding action," she said.