Legislators Seek to Save Coastal Panel

Times Staff Writers

The Democratic leaders of the Assembly and state Senate, who control two-thirds of the appointments to the California Coastal Commission, said Tuesday that they will quickly push though legislation to ensure the commission's survival after an appeals court ruled that the Legislature's control over agency appointees is unconstitutional.

But one Republican legislator indicated that his party would resist a quick fix that did not address a variety of concerns over the commission's power to regulate development along the state's 1,150-mile coastline.

Neither Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) nor Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) said they have settled on a precise legislative solution. But both expressed confidence that the legal deficiency cited by the court could be remedied quickly.

The state's 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento ruled Monday that the Legislature's broad authority to appoint and remove a majority of the commissioners violates the separation of powers doctrine of the state Constitution. The commission exercises executive and quasi-judicial powers in its role as a referee of real estate development and public access along the coast.

"We have our lawyers looking at the issue and I will put in a bill and we will deal with the problem," Burton said. "I want to make sure whatever the fix is, it's the right one."

Wesson said the easiest way may be to follow the suggestion contained in Monday's appellate court ruling to strike the provisions in the law that allow the Legislature to remove a majority of commissioners at will.

In its ruling, a panel of three justices decided unanimously that the Coastal Act violates the separation of powers doctrine not only by allowing the Legislature to appoint eight of 12 members of the commission -- which functions as an agency of the executive branch -- but also because the members "may be removed at the pleasure of the legislative branch." The justices wrote, "The flaw is that the unfettered power to remove the majority of the commission's voting members, and to replace them with others ... makes those commission members subservient to the Legislature."

Wesson said it would take a lot of pressure off himself, Burton and Gov. Gray Davis, each of whom appoints four of the 12 commissioners, if they lop off the "removal at will" clause so that their appointees were given fixed terms of two years.

"It would make my life easier," he said. Instead of lobbyists seeking him out, he could redirect them to his appointed commissioners. "For an individual like me, who has never been a micro-manager, I put them on for two years and pray for them to do a good job."

Wesson said he will seek to limit the bill to the one issue. "We want to make sure the commission is functioning. There are so many people who need permits. They are many areas that we need to protect. If they are shut down, that's chaos."

The governor will not take a position on any bill until he has a chance to see it, said Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio.

The tricky part, legislative leaders and their aides said, will be drafting a narrow bill to satisfy the court's concerns that does not invite tinkering by a variety of different interests who have grievances with the powerful commission.

Any bill to satisfy the court's concerns, said Assemblyman John Campbell (R-Irvine) would "open up a whole lot of things for people to say, 'Wait a minute. There is a lot more here which needs reform.' "

Campbell said other issues that might get written into a bill could include eliminating alleged political patronage in the appointment of commission members, doing away with micromanagement by the commission and even redistributing the appointments, which are now split evenly three ways, so the governor can appoint more than the four he appoints now.

Campbell said he believes the commission gets involved in minuscule matters best left to others. "The Coastal Commission is considered by a lot of people to be one of the most oppressive and dictatorial bodies in the state," he said.

That sentiment is what inspired Ronald Zumbrun, co-founder of the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, to file a lawsuit on behalf of the Marine Forests Society, which built an artificial reef of discarded tires without getting a permit from the Coastal Commission. In addition to challenging the commission's cease-and-desist order to remove the reef, Zumbrun argued that the commission's existence violates the state Constitution.

A Sacramento Superior Court judge agreed with him 18 months ago. So did the appellate court Monday in a ruling that, when it takes effect Jan. 29, will effectively forbid the commission to grant or deny building permits or issue cease-and-desist orders.

The commission, which meets next week, is expected to vote to appeal to the state Supreme Court and ask that the ruling be suspended until all appeals are resolved. Zumbrun, who has spent decades trying to undo the commission he considers out of control, said he will oppose any move to suspend the court ruling.

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