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California

Development interests defeat bills seeking to improve transparency at the California Coastal Commission

California Coastal Commission
Gathering in Santa Monica before a California Coastal Commission hearing.
(Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

Business, labor and pro-development interests on Wednesday night defeated two bills designed to improve transparency at the powerful California Coastal Commission.

A third reform measure that requires one of the commission’s 15 members to be from a low-income minority community affected by environmental problems passed the Assembly and was sent to the governor’s desk.

Only 12 members of the Assembly voted to support SB 1190, a measure sponsored by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) that sought to prohibit the so-called ex-parte contacts that occur outside official public meetings between coastal commissioners and developers, lobbyists, environmentalists and other parties with a stake in commission business. Forty-seven members voted against the bill and 21 abstained.

“I am extremely disappointed that this bill will not be moving forward this year,” Jackson said. “I continue to believe that prohibiting ex-parte communications is vital for restoring public trust in the Coastal Commission and leveling the playing field between big-moneyed interests and those without.”

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Private ex-parte contacts can involve telephone calls, face-to-face meetings, emails or other written material. Commissioners must publicly disclose such interactions within a week of their occurrence, either in writing or orally at a public hearing.

I continue to believe that prohibiting ex-parte communications is vital for restoring public trust in the Coastal Commission
Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara)

Coastal commissioners in recent months have been scrutinized by courts and the media for failing to report these meetings or reporting them late or with little detail, in apparent violation of the statutory requirements.

In a lawsuit filed two weeks ago, a watchdog organization alleges in San Diego County Superior Court that five coastal commissioners — Chairman Steve Kinsey, Erik Howell, Martha McClure, Wendy Mitchell and Mark Vargas — violated the disclosure rules for ex-parte contacts a total of 590 times.  

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Each violation could carry a fine of $7,500. Filed by attorney Cory Briggs and Spotlight on Coastal Corruption, the case seeks civil penalties from individual coastal commissioners. 

Jackson said her bill, which received a Coastal Commission endorsement and passed in the Senate, was necessary to promote transparency on the commission and remove the possibility of backroom deal-making.

But the measure faced substantial resistance in the Assembly from at least a dozen business, labor, construction, real estate and agricultural organizations.They included the California Farm Bureau Federation, the California Chamber of Commerce, the Western States Petroleum Assn. and the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California.

The California League of United Latin American Citizens also weighed in against the bill as did lobbyist Susan McCabe, who often represents development interests and heavily relies on ex-parte contacts with coastal commissioners.

Before the vote, the bill’s opponents said the ban would muzzle free speech by preventing interested parties, such as labor representatives, developers and environmentalists, from expressing their views to commission members.

Scott Wetch, a lobbyist for unions representing utility and electrical workers, called the ban “undemocratic” and said the commission staff regularly dismisses labor’s positions on major projects as if jobs, economic benefits, wages and benefits for workers do not matter.

The California Coastal Act, however, specifically prohibits commissioners from considering many economic benefits of a development, including the potential for job creation, requiring them to focus on issues such as public access to the coast and environmental concerns.

If they stray from the scope of deliberations prescribed by the act, their decisions can be challenged in court.

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The commission’s general counsel, Chris Pederson, wrote a letter to Wetch last week advising him that commissioners’ purview of economic issues is limited

“Members of the public who privately seek to influence the commission to act outside of the agency’s legal authority would be in essence exhorting decision makers to violate the law,” Pederson said.

Some of the bill’s opponents contended that his correspondence amounted to intimidation.

During the floor debate, Assemblyman Donald Wagner (R-Irvine) accused the general counsel of suggesting that anyone who discussed the economic benefits of a project with a commissioner would be doing something illegal.  

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) agreed and said she thought the ban “would take away the ability to have a full discussion about development.”

The bill’s supporters say that most ex-parte contacts are between commissioners and builders seeking approval for projects along California’s 1,100 miles of coast. They say this can undermine the fairness of the court-like proceedings the commission uses for decision-making.

Public hearings, they say, provide an equitable forum at which all interested parties can openly provide information that might influence commissioners’ decisions.

“The ban would move the conversation from the back of the room to the front of the room,” said Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach), a coauthor of the ex-parte measure.

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The bill’s supporters said Wetch, Wagner and other opponents in the Assembly took Pederson’s remarks out of context and wrongly stated that it would be illegal for someone to discuss the economic benefits of a project with a commissioner.

“Assemblyman Wagner either doesn’t understand the law or doesn’t care to understand it,” said Sara Wan, an environmentalist and former coastal commissioner.

A bill by Assemblywoman Autumn Burke (D-Inglewood) requiring the Coastal Commission to include a member from the environmental justice movement passed the Assembly 51 to 25. The measure also calls on the commission to encourage the development of affordable housing along the coast for low and moderate income persons.

“We expect the Coastal Commission to preserve and protect our coastal resources for all Californians,” Burke said. "It’s time the commission not only reflects the diversity of our state, but also incorporates environmental justice concerns that have been overlooked for far too long.”

But another bill touted by its sponsors as encouraging good government also was defeated.

The measure by former Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) and Assemblyman Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay) would have required anyone who lobbies the Coastal Commission to register with the state and disclose any clients who have business pending before the powerful land-use agency.

The bill was designed to close a loophole in the government code that exempts lobbyists on the commission level from reporting details of their activities to the public. It also sought to speed up the way commissioners report their ex-parte contacts and create a system to organize those disclosures so the public can quickly search them to see who was lobbying whom on what issues.

Because the measure would have changed the state’s Political Reform Act, it required a two-thirds vote to pass. The bill got through the Assembly, but received only 22 yes votes in the 40-member Senate.

Opposing the legislation were lobbyists who would have had to register and the same business, construction, real estate and agricultural interests that sought to defeat Jackson’s ex-parte bill.

“The opponents did not understand it,” Stone said. “They were trying to create the specter that everyone [who talked to a commissioner] would have to register as a lobbyist.”

Because of the majorities in favor of the bill, Stone said he will consider introducing similar legislation next year.

“This is about transparency,” he added. “The more sunshine there is, the more accountable government officials will be.”

dan.weikel@latimes.com

Twitter: @ladeadline16

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