In a country of the haves versus the have-nots, the 1 percent versus everyone else, it’s a good thing we have regulatory agencies that serve to preserve natural resources so that all can benefit. The California Coastal Commission is particularly critical in accomplishing such things, scrutinizing development proposals to ensure that the rich and the poor both have access to the state’s priceless amenity. Unfortunately, it seems as though the very agency and people that were meant to protect access to the California Coast for present and future generations have opted to haphazardly disregard the safeguards that ensure they have the public’s best interest at heart.
Several California Coastal Commission members have come under fire recently for lack of transparency when meeting and communicating with developers who had projects planned along the coast. Commissioners who fail to properly report such interactions may be subject to fines and may be prohibited from voting on the approval of said projects. Four current lawsuits contend, however, that six of 10 commissioners failed to properly report their communications and that related project approvals should therefore be overturned. Failures in proper reporting included reports that were incomplete, unsigned, lacked official time stamps or were not filed by deadline. The California attorney general’s office, which represents the commission, argued that “technical deficiencies” and untimely disclosures do not justify overturning at least one particular approval for a project in Laguna Canyon, according to a recent L.A. Times article. An Orange County judge felt otherwise, siding with conservation group Friends of the Canyon and calling into question the failures to report their ex-parte communications. The case is still pending.
While these failures in reporting communication are suspicious, at the very least, Gov. Jerry Brown has remained surprisingly quiet on these concerns, given that Brown, in 1976 as governor, signed into law the Coastal Act, from which the Commission was birthed. Further, when the Commission earlier this year fired its executive director, Charles Lester, who was known for his dedication to the preservation of public access, Brown did not weigh in. The governor, Senate Rules Committee or the speaker of the assembly appoints the coastal commissioners. Given the apparent and even blatant disregard of procedure in reporting plus getting rid of Lester, who might have been a formidable hurdle for developers, it’s disheartening to think our governor just doesn’t seem to care about these issues.
There is one lawmaker who does seem to care. State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, introduced a bill earlier this year that is making its way through the state legislature, currently in the Committee on Appropriations, for a vote, that would ban all ex-parte communications altogether. We stand with Jackson on this issue, and even though it may be inconvenient or even frustrating for developers and commissioners, there is no reason that communications should not be held strictly in public arenas. Thankfully, however, the California Coastal Commission backed Jackson’s legislation, SB-1190, in an effort to restore the public trust. Now we wait for the bill to make its way through the legislature and to the governor’s desk for approval. In the end, though, it’s just dismaying that there was a need to legislate this ethical issue. If it weren’t for dedicated conservationists and reporters such as Steve Lopez of the L.A. Times, such problems may have slipped by … as well as access to California’s invaluable public treasure.