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Is Brown about to condo the coast? Find out in the latest Cali-Novela episode of ‘One Shore, Many Sharks’

Gov. Jerry Brown has announced a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below the 1990 level by 2030.
Gov. Jerry Brown has announced a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below the 1990 level by 2030.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Covering the California Coastal Commission is like getting addicted to a soap opera. It’s one dramatic turn after another, power and money are central characters and there’s an occasional knife in the back.

Today’s Cali-Novela episode features three interconnected story lines:

Is California Gov. Jerry Brown poised to clear the way for development that plunders voter-approved protections in the Coastal Act?

How did commissioners manage to subvert the intent of legislation to ban secret meetings, even after one commissioner landed in jail?

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Will campaign donations from Commissioner Martha McClure’s back-scratching buddies on the Coastal Commission preserve the Brown-appointed bloc that helped dump Executive Director Charles Lester, whose mortal sin was unrelenting preservation of our state’s great and glorious coast?

That’s a lot of material, but bear with me and I’ll take you through it all in three easy steps.

First, the governor.

On this, the 40-year anniversary of the Coastal Act, the Brown administration tried last week to rally legislative support for an affordable housing plan that could give developers the right to circumvent the Coastal Act and the California Environmental Quality Act and begin hammering away.

The lack of a coastal protection plan in this proposal is simply unacceptable.

Sierra Club letter of protest

Coming soon to a beach near you: condo developments that block views, limit access and crush baby plovers.

“The lack of a coastal protection plan in this proposal is simply unacceptable,” said a Sierra Club letter of protest addressed to legislators on a joint budget committee. “This would very likely result in impacts to wetlands ... sensitive habitats, public access, scenic view sheds and other priority coastal resources and land uses.”

A Brown spokesman told me the governor does “not discuss ongoing budget/legislative negotiations.”

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Well excuse me. If the Coastal Act is being hijacked by the governor or anyone else, I can think of 40 million people who damn well ought to know about it. Instead, these conversations are being had in the depths of the sausage factory, and there are no public tours.

As state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) put it when I asked what he thought:

“We and the public deserve much better than a process devoid of any policy committee consideration, analysis, debate or public comment.”

Hear, hear!

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Who doesn’t support Brown’s desire to build affordable housing? But there’s no need to throw out reasonable protections either inland or along the coast, as he proposes. His plan wouldn’t produce much affordable housing anyway, just a unit or two here and there, surrounded by market-rate million-dollar beach pads.

If he wanted more affordable housing, he should look at what the Coastal Commission accomplished in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when several thousand units were built.

“No exemptions from the Coastal Act were necessary or allowed in order to build a substantial amount of new affordable housing,” said a letter sent Friday to legislators and Brown by the California Coastal Protection Network.

If you don’t like what’s happening, you’ve got time to weigh in because Brown’s sausage recipe is still a work in progress. I’ll tell you how to do so in a minute.

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Second, the secret meetings.

In 1988, Sylvester Stallone wanted to add a swimming pool to his Malibu compound. A member of the Coastal Commission offered to smooth the approval process for a mere $25,000 fee. But the actor who played Rocky was no palooka, and he refused to step into that ring.

Others weren’t as tough as Rocky. They paid the shake-down fee, and Commissioner Mark Nathanson paid the price. He went to prison for corruption.

There had been suspicions long before that case that commissioners were meeting in private with people who wanted to build this or that along the coast.

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As early as 1981, future Gov. George Deukmejian, then a deputy attorney general, sent a memo to commissioners warning against such private meetings, arguing that courts are “almost certain” to throw out rulings that were challenged because the quasi-judicial process had been tainted.

In the midst of the Nathanson scandal that followed, Terry Friedman, a Westside assemblyman, introduced legislation that he thought would end so-called ex-parte communications between commissioners and applicants.

His bill, which became law, required commissioners to report any such contacts along with a full accounting of what was discussed. Friedman told me last week that his intention was “to shame commissioners from engaging in these communications.”

Apparently they were shameless.

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Instead of avoiding ex-partes, as Friedman had intended, commissioners acted as if the legislation offered legal cover. This subversion gave rise to a cottage industry of high-priced consultants, some of them political rainmakers, who meet regularly with commissioners

And as The Times has reported, commissioners don’t always provide full accounts of those conversations. Sometimes — talk about shameless — they let the hired-guns provide the descriptions of what was discussed.

Steve Kinsey, the current chair of the commission, twice failed in the last several months to report ex-partes with proponents of the massive and controversial Newport Banning Ranch project under consideration by the commission.

If Kinsey doesn’t recuse himself from voting on that project (he wouldn’t say whether he would when I emailed last week to ask him), the commission should be shut down until further notice for fumigation and remodeling.

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And the reason I bring all of this up is to remind you that state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) has a bill in play that would ban ex-parte communications. The bill has gotten a hardy endorsement from someone who wishes that 24 years ago, he’d worded his legislation the way that Jackson has.

His disinfectant didn’t work, Friedman told me. But Jackson is offering a stronger dose.

Third, you scratch my back.

The Del Norte Triplicate newspaper checked in with me recently to confirm that Coastal Commissioner Martha McClure had cussed me out, as reported in this space. Not only did she, but if there were a Hall of Fame for letting it rip, I’d personally nominate McClure. She really, really didn’t like my questions about a donation several years ago from the domestic partner of the most powerful consultant who lobbies the Coastal Commission.

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Now the Triplicate’s Jessica Cejnar has reported that McClure, who is running for reelection as Del Norte County supervisor, has received campaign donations of $750 and $999 from fellow coastal Commissioners Wendy Mitchell and Mark Vargas.

That’s Coastal Commission-style family values.

Mitchell and Vargas voted in February along with McClure — a Brown appointee — to fire the executive director who knew more about the Coastal Act than anyone alive. I guess they’d love to keep the cabal together, even though Lester’s firing demoralized the commission staff and outraged thousands of others.

McClure needs to get reelected Tuesday in Del Norte in order to keep her seat on the Coastal Commission, and the generosity of Mitchell and Vargas can’t hurt.

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That’s our Cali-Novela for this week, stay tuned for future program listings.

If you’d like to support the ban on ex-partes, go to www.legislature.ca.gov, click on “Find Your Legislator” and send along a note.

And don’t forget to let the governor know how you feel about the state’s 1,100 miles of sandy beaches and rocky shores by tweeting @JerryBrownGov with the hashtag #saveyourcoast.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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