Column: Transparency? In Sacramento? Death by drowning for two bills aimed at cleaning up Coastal Commission
Let’s start with the hug.
Yes, sometimes there’s hugging in Sacramento.
Such as when political consultants and lobbyists get exactly what they want from state legislators, and they’re so over the moon, they can’t help themselves.
I’m talking about Scott Wetch, labor union lobbyist, and Susan McCabe, prolific hired gun for coastal developers.
Wetch and McCabe lobbied vigorously against a bill by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) that would have banned private meetings between California coastal commissioners and the people trying to influence their votes.
Moments later, Wetch and McCabe were seen having a victory hug, and witnesses tell me McCabe gave Wetch a peck on the cheek.
McCabe didn’t return my call. Wetch did, saying he recalled the hug but not the peck. Then he added:
“If somebody saw that, I’m sure it happened.”
I would have celebrated too, if I were in their shoes. McCabe and Wetch have clients to represent, they’re good at what they do, and they got the desired results.
But instead of a hug, Californians got a kick in the pants.
If you’ve been keeping score, you know why reforms were necessary, and you’re probably having a hard time understanding how the Legislature could justify Wednesday’s debacle.
Need a recap?
Commissioners have met far more often with backers of projects than opponents, and they have broken rules by failing to report private sessions with developers. They have sometimes offered only the briefest accounts of what was discussed in such conversations, or rubber-stamped accounts that were written, quite literally, by the lobbyists themselves.
You want more?
Two commissioners have accepted campaign donations from McCabe’s business and domestic partner; ethics investigations are underway. And the Coastal Commission is facing lawsuits related to private conversations between commissioners and developers.
What else would have to go wrong for legislators to agree there’s a problem? And can someone remove the duct tape from Gov. Jerry Brown’s mouth? He hasn’t uttered a peep about any of this.
Sen. Jackson’s legislation was one of two clean-up bills that drowned Wednesday in the Sacramento cesspool. The other was by Assembly members Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) and Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley). Among other things, the latter would have required McCabe and others who lobby the Coastal Commission to register as lobbyists, so the public would have more information about what they’re up to, who’s paying them, etc.
“Both of these are transparency bills,” an outraged Atkins said, calling me midday Wednesday to predict the impending losses. “There is no reason for both these bills to go down.”
Some legislators seemed to be taking positions that had nothing to do with the bills, Atkins said. Instead, personality differences were in play, and petty turf issues that come up when bills move from one house to the other.
Sounds like high school, doesn’t it?
“You know, it’s politics,” said Atkins, who called the process “disgusting.”
But not surprising.
All you’ve got to do is look at who lobbied against the reforms to know why they were necessary.
The biggest opponents were labor, the Chamber of Commerce, Big Oil, developers and their lobbyists.
And what do they have in common?
They all stand to benefit from keeping the system as it is now.
They want more development, not less, up to and including a controversial desalination plant and massive hotel/residential project in Orange County. And sure, the state could definitely use more jobs in construction and commerce, and there is such a thing as reasonable development. But it can’t be at the expense of preserving a coast that’s meant for everyone to enjoy, not just those with enough money and lobbying clout to build their castles in the sand.
Legislators who opposed the reforms were pulling arguments out of their pockets, so to speak. To hear them, you’d think Jackson was an un-American zealot trying to stifle free speech. Actually, commissioners still would have been allowed to visit construction sites under certain circumstances, and all sides would have been free to file written arguments for or against projects and testify at public hearings.
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) helped make a farce of the proceedings. In denouncing Jackson’s bill, she cited her career as a labor leader and argued that the Coastal Commission’s lawyer was “threatening” labor officials “to not speak about issues of concern to their own folks that they represent.”
As I read the lawyer’s comments, he was merely pointing out that a project’s economic impact is beyond the scope of the commissioners’ purview. Their job is to decide whether a proposal meets the specifications laid down in the Coastal Act, and not to clear the way for a full-employment program along the state’s 1,100-mile coast.
Commissioners serve in a quasi-judicial capacity, making private conversations loaded with potential conflicts that state officials have warned about going back more than 30 years. But legislation that aimed to put an end to private conversations after a 1980s corruption scandal contained a loophole that has been used to turn the lobbying of coastal commissioners into a cottage industry, with billions of dollars in play and the conservation of the coast in peril.
Shame on Sacramento for failing the public and the coast.
One last thought:
Coastal commissioners created this mess, and they were responding to a public outcry in May when they voted, 6-5, to support Jackson’s bill banning private communications.
Well, they’re free to impose their own ban, as some of them have.
Trying to win back the public trust, once you’ve squandered it, does not require legislation.
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