Gov. Gray Davis' high-priority bill to quickly resuscitate the state Coastal Commission ran into opposition Tuesday from Senate Democrats, but it survived and will face an expected floor vote this week.
The bill attempts to correct what two courts have ruled is a violation of the separation of powers doctrine because the eight legislative appointees on the powerful commission wield a hefty advantage over the four members appointed by the governor.
As proposed by Davis, Senate Bill 1x would require that legislative appointees serve fixed terms instead of open-ended terms, as they do now. Under the current system, said the 3rd District Court of Appeal, the Legislature's ability to remove and replace its appointees on a political whim gives lawmakers undue influence over commission decisions.
The court suggested that legislative appointees might comply with the wishes of the Legislature in order to keep their jobs. As a result, the court said, the commission structure violates the separation of powers by giving the lawmakers unconstitutional authority over a majority of the panel's members.
The court indicated that the problem could be remedied by establishing fixed terms for legislative appointees, which would insulate them from intervention by the Legislature.
Davis' bill, amended to fix the terms at four years rather than two as Davis had proposed, was approved Tuesday by the Senate Natural Resources Committee on a 9-3 vote and sent to the full Senate for a vote, expected in the next few days. A similar bill, which would create terms of two years, is moving in the Assembly.
William Brieger of the state Department of Justice told the Natural Resources Committee that Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer was "quite comfortable" that a fixed-term bill would satisfy the court.
But Sens. Byron Sher (D-Stanford), Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey) and Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) complained that while the bill provides terms of four years, it contains no mechanism for the Legislature to remove its appointees for cause, a condition in which a specific offense is not required for dismissal.
Bowen noted that ugly controversies have rocked the commission in the past, including a case in the early 1990s when Commissioner Mark L. Nathanson, an appointee of then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown Jr., was found guilty of extorting payments from celebrities in exchange for permits to build along the coast. He went to prison for five years.
Bowen said the commission had a long "history of corruption, investigations and jail sentences." She told Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), who carried the bill for Davis, that it would be relatively easy to quickly draft a procedure that would enable legislative appointees to be removed for cause.
Kuehl agreed that it was an important issue but was unwilling to amend her bill to include such a change. She said she wanted to keep the bill "narrow and simple" and not involved in other issues that might drag it down.
The three Democratic critics on the committee voted for the bill when Kuehl agreed that the issue deserved more legislative attention and suggested she would look at pursuing it later in the year.
Davis called a special session of the Legislature last week on repairing the commission. He said he wants the remedial legislation enacted this week in an effort to head off possible intervention by the state Supreme Court.