Process for a more transparent California Coastal Commission becomes murky

UPDATE: SB 1190 and AB 2002 did make it out of the Appropriations Committee on Aug. 11.

SACRAMENTO — Two parallel bills in California’s State Senate and Assembly aim to bring more transparency to the California Coastal Commission by banning ex parte communications – private discussions between commissioners and private parties with an interest in the outcome of decisions. However the future of both legislative proposals are up in the air after Senate Bill 1190 (SB 1190) and Assembly Bill 2002 (AB 2002) were placed on the suspense file in early August.

The fate of each bill was not yet determined as of press time but if SB 1190 is not taken off the suspense file after an Aug. 11 hearing then there is no chance of the proposal becoming law in 2016. AB 2002 would suffer a similar fate if it remains on the suspense file.

State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) introduced SB 1190 in late March to ban ex parte communications with commissioners.

The bill proposed to ban “any private oral, electronic or written communications that do not occur in a public meeting between the commissioners and someone with an interest in a decision going before the 12-member body.”

Senators approved SB 1190 on May 23 by a 23-12 vote. A few weeks later the bill earned the support of the State Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee. However SB 1190 lost momentum when the bill was placed on the Assembly’s suspense file earlier this month.

AB 2002, which was introduced by Assembly member Mark Stone (D-Monterey), was also placed on the suspense file. The State Assembly approved AB 2002 by a 54-23 vote on June 2.

Stone’s bill aimed to require anyone lobbying coastal commissioners to be formally registered as a lobbyist.

“Current law lacks the transparency that Californians clearly expect and deserve regarding who is working to influence decisions that commissioners make. This measure requires that people lobbying Coastal Commissioners become registered as lobbyists and become subject to public disclosure laws,” Stone said in a statement shortly after the Assembly vote in June.

Both bills were introduced within a month after Charles Lester was fired as the commission’s executive director. Some claimed Lester was dismissed because he held pro-environment stances that made it difficult for developers to pursue their interests.

Direct evidence corroborating such allegations have yet to be revealed, though could inferences be made from the recent news reports of statements made by an Orange County judge in a lawsuit involving the Coastal Commission and its ex parte communications practice?

Judge Kim Dunning reportedly questioned the private communications six commissioners had with developers regarding a Laguna Beach housing project.

Dunning, in a lawsuit challenging the project, pointed out six commissioners failed to disclose their respective ex parte communications, according to a news report.

The California Coastal Act requires commissioners are required to disclose all private communications with interested parties who might sway their vote within seven days.

The six commissioners, according to reports, are Greg Cox, Martha McClure, Effie Turnbull-Sanders, Mark Vargas, Erik Howell, and Steve Kinsey.

Interestingly enough only one of those six commissioners – Kinsey – voted in favor of keeping Lester aboard as executive director in February. Kinsey also stated publicly at a recent meeting he failed to disclose an ex parte communication on the Banning Ranch project in Newport Beach; he recused himself from upcoming deliberations on the large development plan.

Four of the other commissioners reportedly identified by the Orange County judge as failing to disclose private communications with developers – McClure, Turnbull-Sanders, Vargas and Howell – voted to fire Lester from his executive director post.

Cox was not present at the February meeting where Lester’s fate was decided.

There is no clear connection (yet) of whether the alleged failures to disclose private communications with developers had anything to do with the decision to ouster Lester but in light of recent litigation and legislation the matter could easily be debated – especially in light of SB 1190 and AB 2002 being taken off the docket. (News reports indicated Sen. Jackson was surprised SB 1190 was placed on suspense.)

Lawsuits and proposes bills aside the California Coastal Act also addresses ex parte communications and penalties for not disclosing oral or written discussions with parties who might be able to influence a vote.

Section 30325 of the Coastal Act states any commission who knowingly fails to report an ex parte communication would be subject, at minimum, to a $7,500 civil fine.

The Coastal Act also states fairness, openness and due process are necessary to maintain the public’s trust in the Coastal Commission.

“The public interest and principles of fundamental fairness and due process of law require that the commission conduct its affairs in an open, objective, and impartial manner free of undue influence and the abuse of power and authority,” reads Section 30320 of the Coastal Act.

Regardless of what happens in legislative hearings this month the public still has plenty of opportunities to contact legislators and inform them of whether bills such as SB 1150 and AB 2002 should move forward.

If both bills are taken off the suspense file and are allowed to continue through the current legislative cycle then you can contact your local State Senator and Assembly member to inform them of whether or not ex parte communications should be banned and interested parties who contact coastal commissioners should be registered as a lobbyist.

Conversely if both bills are held in suspense then any decisions of whether ex parte communications would be banned cannot be decided until the 2017-18 legislative cycle. The public is still encouraged to communicate with legislators and speak at Coastal Commission meetings.

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Standing Watch/Take Action

In this section you will find resources and supplemental information on what you can do to Take Action. Submit additional information or tips on this issue to editor@thelog.com

Help decide whether ex parte communications are banned from the California Coastal Commission.

Call any of Sen. Jackson’s three offices to express your support or opposition to SB 1190:

  • Capitol: 916-651-4019
  • Santa Barbara: 805-965-0862
  • Oxnard: 805-988-1940.

Reach and of Assembly member Mark Stone’s three offices regarding AB 2002 at:

  • Capitol: 916-319-2029
  • Santa Cruz: 831-425-1503
  • Monterey: 831-649-2832.

Noaki Schwartz can answer questions and receive public records requests on behalf of the Coastal Commission. She can be reached at 562-833-5487 or noaki.schwartz@coastal.ca.gov.

Other contacts at the Coastal Commission are: