Senate President Pro Tem John Burton urged Gov. Gray Davis on Thursday to call the Legislature into an immediate special session to restore the California Coastal Commission as a constitutional agency.
The San Francisco Democrat, a longtime backer of coastal protection, said a speedy special session was needed to prevent the commission from going out of business and to head off a possible adverse ruling from the state Supreme Court.
Davis’ office did not have an immediate comment on Burton’s plea, but Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) said a special session makes sense. Wesson said he believed the high court would agree to consider an appeal, “especially if it knows we are taking steps to remedy the concern.”
“The quicker we can get this resolved, the better,” said a spokeswoman for the commission, noting that the agency is still in business while the appellate court’s ruling is stayed.
The commission, created by voters in a 1972 initiative, was handed a potentially fatal blow Monday by the 3rd District Court of Appeal, which ruled that the commission’s membership is weighted in favor of legislative appointees, whose terms are not fixed and presumably could be subject to political manipulation by the legislators who appointed them.
The 12-member commission, which regulates development along the scenic 1,150-mile coastline from tiny Fort Dick in the Northwest to San Diego in the south, was praised by conservationists as a vigilant protector of the natural environment and criticized by detractors as a ruthless oppressor of private property rights.
But the appellate court, which upheld a decision by the Sacramento Superior Court, ruled that a majority of the commission was dominated by eight appointees of the Legislature, which can appoint and fire them at will, a practice that has occurred occasionally as the panel faced controversial votes. The governor appoints the other four members, who also can be removed at will.
The court said this arrangement violates the separation of powers doctrine of the state Constitution. It suggested that the governor and Legislature could resolve the problem by creating specific terms for commissioners.
In an interview, Burton said it is important that the Legislature act quickly to make the commission constitutional so that programs and policies regulating planning and development would not be thrown into chaos.
“If the Supreme Court rules, we could be without a commission,” Burton said. In a letter to Davis, he said that if the Supreme Court upholds the appellate court’s opinion and the Legislature fails to act, “the state’s ability to protect the coast would be jeopardized.”
Burton said he did not have specific remedies in mind but said a bill will be written that addresses the constitutional questions. Wesson said that at this point he favors limiting legislative appointees to two-year terms, the same as Assembly members.
Attorney Ronald Zumbrun, who won the court case on behalf of an organization known as the Marine Forests Society, which built an artificial reef of used tires without a commission permit, said the Legislature must also decide whether the commission will be a policy-setting organization or an enforcement agency of the executive branch.
If it became solely a policymaking entity, Zumbrun said, the commission could retain its current lineup of legislative and gubernatorial appointees.
But if it were to become a regulatory agency with enforcement powers under the governor, its members would serve fixed terms, he said.
The advantage of a special session over a regular session is speed in getting a law to take effect. Normally, most bills become law on the next Jan. 1. In a special session, a bill can become law 90 days after the session is adjourned.
If Davis were to call a special session, it would run concurrently with the regular session that begins Monday.
If the Legislature and governor were to approve a coastal bill by the end of the month, it would take effect in April, theoretically before the Supreme Court acts on an appeal, which the commission is expected to authorize next week.