Coastal Commission’s ex parte legislation survives vote

Parallel bills aiming to regulate ex parte communications moves forward – with concessions.

SACRAMENTO — Attempts to make the California Coastal Commission more transparent might have suffered a minor blow on Aug. 11 as the State Assembly’s Appropriations Committee approved a version of Senate Bill 1190 (SB 1190) that might have less bite than originally intended.

SB 1190, which aims to eliminate ex parte communications from Coastal Commission deliberations, cleared the Appropriations Committee with an 11-4 vote (with five no-votes-recorded) in favor of moving forward. The Assembly approved SB1190, 73-0, on Aug. 19. However the bill, if approved and signed into law, could now allow for ex parte communications in certain situations.

In all the Appropriations Committee made five amendments to SB 1190, according to news reports.

Final details of the amendments are not fully available yet but ex parte communications would be allowed under specific circumstances, such as when a developer and coastal commissioner visits a project site or if someone is acting in their official capacity as an elected officer (i.e. city council member or county supervisor).

The Coastal Commission has been under fire in recent months, facing allegations of commissioners being in the pockets of developers and the agency as a whole lacking transparency – especially after its executive director, Charles Lester, was dismissed over widespread public support for his work.

The decision to dismiss Lester was widely questioned after the commission failed to provide a formal explanation as to why he was relieved of his duties.

State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) proposed SB 1190 shortly after Lester’s dismissal in February, hoping to address the public’s concerns of the Coastal Commission lacking transparency. A similar bill came out of the Assembly proposing to severely restrict ex parte communications.

Coastal commissioners are allowed to engage in private conversations with developers on substantive matters of a project proposal ahead of a pending vote. All ex parte communications must be reported to the state agency’s staff within seven days, though it has recently been revealed some commissioners fell short of reporting private meetings in a timely manner.

Eliminating ex parte communications would go a long way at rebuilding the public’s trust of the Coastal Commission by bringing private dealings into the open.

Whether private, off-the-record interactions between commissioners and developers will actually be held in a public forum for upcoming deliberations could be in jeopardy, however, in light of how the recent legislative process played out.

News reports indicated Jackson might withdraw SB 1190 in light of amendments made to the bill in the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee.

Jackson aimed to prevent all ex parte communications between commissioners and developers, environmentalists, lobbyists or anyone else who is an “interested party” to a pending decision. A party is “interested” in a matter if they have a financial or other stake in a project’s approval or rejection.

The amended version of SB 1190 now goes to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk for final approval or veto.

The public, whether in favor of the bill amendments or those who support a full ban on private meetings between developers and commissioners, could still take action (see Standing Watch in our Aug. 12 issue) on the future of how ex parte communications are used in the Coastal Commission.

State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson can be reached by email (senator.jackson@sen.ca.gov), phone (916-651-4019 or 805-965-0862) or Twitter (@SenHannahBeth).

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