Column: Taxpayers could foot the bill when coastal officials are accused of wrongdoing
Where’s Oliver Hardy when you need him?
If Laurel’s partner were still around, and paying attention to the long-running California coastal corruption case, he’d have the perfect line at the ready.
“This is another nice mess you’ve gotten us into.”
The mess just keeps getting messier, too. For that, we can thank the state attorney general, whose handling of the case suggests “Keystone Kops” as much as “Laurel and Hardy.”
And we can thank three former and two current members of the California Coastal Commission. They were found guilty recently of violating rules regarding private meetings with individuals who have business before the all-powerful commission, which votes to approve or reject coastal development and land use applications.
Former Commissioner Steve Kinsey was fined $30,300.
Former Commissioner Wendy Mitchell was fined $7,100.
Former Commissioner Martha McClure was fined $2,600.
Commissioner Mark Vargas was fined $13,600.
Commissioner Erik Howell was fined $3,500.
But the tab runs way higher than that, because the judge in the case ruled that the commissioners must also pay $959,000 in attorney’s fees to the party that brought the suit against them.
And it’s not yet clear who’s going to pay that money. Will it be the guilty commissioners, or are they going to try to stick taxpayers with the tab, drawing it from the state general fund or the Coastal Commission budget?
The attorney general has filed an appeal, by the way, so get ready for Round 2, and more costs to taxpayers.
One day, early in the trial, former Commissioner Mitchell hissed at me on her way out of court. I can’t blame her, because I once wrote that her gift to California was her resignation from the commission. But she and the commissioners got a pretty good deal on their legal defense.
The lawsuit was filed against them individually, not against the Coastal Commission. The attorney general’s office argued that it represents the agency and had to represent the accused commissioners because “the allegations concern conduct within the scope of their responsibilities as commissioners.”
Excuse me, but repeatedly failing to report private meetings, failing to report them on time, and letting lobbyists write the accounts of those private meetings is not “conduct within the scope.”
It’s arrogant, reckless disregard.
In defending the accused, the attorney general’s office knew it was stepping into a minefield. In a Sept. 26, 2016, letter to the Coastal Commission, the attorney general said that if the commissioners lost the case and someone had to be held responsible for paying the assessed penalties and rewards, “that would present a conflict of interest for us” in determining whether that money should be paid by the commissioners or the agency (translation: taxpayers).
Then don’t take the case.
But of course the attorney general’s office did take the case, and what was the central component of its defense strategy?
To blame the Coastal Commission for the misdeeds of the accused commissioners.
Talk about conflicts of interest.
In court, the deputy attorney general argued that the agency’s system of filing reports on private meetings was screwed up, and that commissioners didn’t get proper training on rules governing those private meetings.
There might have been a few administrative problems, but if the agency staff was so disorganized and the rules so unclear, why were the majority of commissioners able to easily comply?
When the verdict came in, the bulk of the allegations were rejected by the judge, but enough of them stuck to give Spotlight on Coastal Corruption a victory that was cheered by coastal stewards up and down the state.
So why was the attorney general taking bows?
Because if the damages against the commissioners had been worse, they could have been assessed millions in penalties. And so the attorney general’s office argued that because of this partial victory, its own legal costs of roughly $650,000 should be paid by Spotlight on Coastal Corruption.
It was like arguing that you may have lost the World Series, but you did well enough to deserve a piece of the trophy.
Briggs and Spotlight argued that the attorney general’s office, as a public agency, had no right to any such compensation. And you’re not going to believe the response from the office of Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra.
It argued in a court filing that if it had been representing the people of the state of California in this lawsuit, it would not have been eligible to receive fee awards. But “Here, the Attorney General’s office was representing private individuals sued in their personal capacity...”
A few questions, counselor.
Why is the state attorney general defending private individuals?
Has it done so before?
And if that’s how the commissioners are now being described, why did the attorney general’s office agree to represent them on appeal? Shouldn’t private individuals get private attorneys already?
This is the same attorney general’s office that recently decided in private, along with the Coastal Commission, to stop fighting for public access to Hollister Ranch. So in that case, they stiffed the public and bowed to wealthy private landowners who have thrown up roadblocks to anyone trying to enjoy those central coast beaches.
And in the Spotlight case, they’re sticking up for “private individuals” who broke the rules and abandoned their duty to the public.
Is anyone representing us?
“By most standards this is a gift of public funds,” said Mary Shallenberger, a former coastal commissioner. “Private citizens cannot get free legal advice or free legal representation from the state, and that is what is happening here.”
Kathryn Burton, president of Spotlight on Coastal Corruption, was still steaming over the suggestion that her group should pay for the misdeeds of the commissioners.
“I don’t understand how you can argue on one hand that they’re private citizens and then try to have them reimbursed,” she said. “What makes them so special?”
She also disputed the attorney general’s claim that penalties and fees levied against the five commissioners would deter other people from wanting to become coastal commissioners.
“You don’t have any problems if you follow the rules, and this wasn’t a case where there were a few mistakes,” Burton said. “It was a pattern.”
I had lots of questions for the attorney general’s office, but got a brief response that failed to answer most of them and reasserted that the commissioners were sued “regarding conduct within the scope of their employment with the Commission.”
It’s like a riff on the famous scene in Chinatown.
They’re public. They’re private. They’re public. They’re private.
As I said, it’s unclear who’s going to end up writing the checks for all of this nonsense, but I’d like to see the commissioners at the front of that line.
Stay tuned for the answers.
Until then, don’t forget that there is no compelling need for the private meetings — known as ex-parte communications — that prompted the Spotlight lawsuit. And yet although the current set of commissioners seems to run a cleaner operation than the last crew did, eight out of 12 of them still take ex-partes. To find out who they are, go to the agency website at coastal.ca.gov, click on commissioners, and shoot them an email if you like.
In a more transparent system, anyone who wants to present his or her perspective to a commissioner on any coastal issue can do so in writing. Those communications would then be posted on the commission website for all to see, with hired-gun lobbyists enjoying no advantage over average folks. Those who still want to speak up could do so at the meetings, in public, rather than in private.
If that’s the way things were done, there’d be no fine mess, and no need for Spotlight on Coastal Corruption.
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