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Opinion

Editorial: A difficult home stretch for bill to restore integrity to Coastal Commission decisions

Crescent Bay
Beach combers enjoy a warm summer evening exploring the ocean and coastline at Crescent Bay in Laguna Beach, on Aug. 11.
(Los Angeles Times)

Behind-the-scenes communication isn’t just tolerated at the California Coastal Commission. It is a sanctioned way of life.

As the members of this powerful panel make decisions affecting the state’s precious coastline, they can meet privately with whomever they like — landowners such as the U2 guitarist seeking to develop a Malibu hilltop, environmentalists hoping to preserve dwindling coastal habitats, developers eager to build on the remaining open stretches of coast and regular citizens concerned about shuttered access points to public beaches — provided that they put a summary of the meeting into the public record promptly.

Or commissioners can not meet with some or all of them. It’s up to them to grant or deny private meetings as they please.

However, most private meetings that have been publicly reported have occurred between those with the means to travel up and down the state (think wealthy developers and their paid lobbyists) to schmooze with the 12 voting commissioners on a particular project. This arrangement has eroded public trust and cast suspicion on recent decisions made by the Coastal Commission, notably the firing earlier this year of Charles Lester, the agency’s executive director who was popular with environmentalists. Some people believe that decision was influenced by advocates of coastal development.

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The best solution to this is to prohibit any private communications when the commission is considering a development application. To keep it honest, all testimony and communication should be open to the public. That’s why we strongly support SB 1190 by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara).

The bill would ban not just in-person meetings but any type of ex parte communication — private emails, texts, memos, letters, etc. — between the commissioners and the people trying to influence the outcome of a proceeding. Developers or environmental groups could still send letters and memos to commissioners explaining why they should vote a certain way, but the communications would become part of the public record. And of course anyone could still attend the commission’s hearings and plead their cases publicly.

It shouldn’t be hard for lawmakers ... to recognize how important it is to protect the coast for all Californians.

It’s not an unusual prohibition. The California Air Resources Board, the State Water Resources Control Board, the California Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission have similar restrictions on ex parte communication.

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This important bill seemed in peril earlier this month after picking up surprise amendments in the Assembly Appropriations Committee by chairwoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego). On first blush the amendments seemed intended to render the legislation unpalatable to supporters. But once the actual language was available, it became clear that changes did not endanger the fundamental goal of the bill, which is to level the playing field for everyone with a stake in the commission’s actions.

Gonzalez said that the amendments were based on her own experiences on the Coastal Commission (she was an alternate) and intended to improve the bill. They included a provision governing commissioners’ visits to project sites and a requirement that the public be able to testify remotely.

Nevertheless, Jackson has some concerns about the practicability of the latter provision, which would require the commission to take testimony from across the state via phone or video. The commission may not have the funding or resources to do this at the moment. Although this issue seems fixable, lawmakers shouldn’t allow the bill to get hung up on such a peripheral matter.

Amendments aside, there’s still an uncertain road ahead for the ex parte ban because there’s no telling which way the Assembly and its powerful caucus of moderate Democrats will vote. It shouldn’t be hard for lawmakers, however, to recognize how important it is to protect the coast for all Californians. Assembly members representing low-income, land-locked and park-poor communities should be the fiercest supporters of this bill because their constituents have the most to lose in the struggle over public access to the beaches.

People can argue for eons over the relative merits of allowing public decision-makers to hold private meetings with interested parties, and over whether they help or hinder the process. But the fact is that many people no longer believe that it is a fair process. Jackson’s bill would go a long way toward rectifying that.

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