The Politics of Geography: California’s Rotating Commission Meetings
California Coastal Commission & Fish and Game Commission spread meetings across the state, but does it help or hurt public access?
STATEWIDE — The entirety of California’s coast fits neatly between metro San Diego’s southern reach and Smith River’s upper extremes. Smith River, like San Diego, is a coastal town operating as California’s extreme border town. A few more clicks up the 101 Freeway places you in Oregon.
Acting as California’s welcome town for commuters traveling the United States’ Pacific Ocean coastline is about all Smith River and San Diego have in common. One city is a bustling metropolis with millions of residents, whereas the other is an unincorporated census-designated town where the local wildlife more than likely outnumbers the local population.
Yet Smith River is where the most recent Fish and Game Commission was held. The census-designated town has an estimated population of 767 people. (The entirety of Del Norte County, where Smith River is located, is home to less 29,000 residents.)
No major freeways service the small town. The closest airport, which is 15 miles away, only services PenAir and shuttles solely to Portland, Oregon. United Airlines Express flies into Arcata-Eureka Airport (ACV) from San Francisco International Airport. ACV is about an 80-mile drive to Smith River.
The airport in Medford, Oregon could also be an option, though it is more than 100 miles away and requires a significant amount of mountain driving – which might not make for ideal driving conditions in the winter.
None of California Coastal Commission’s meetings this year are as far north as Smith River, though it’s most recent session was held in Arcata – a little less than two hours south of Smith River and the California-Oregon border.
Other cities on the Coastal Commission’s monthly tour include Seaside (near Monterey), Malibu and Cambria (north of San Luis Obispo). The quasi-judicial agency has already met in San Luis Obispo, Newport Beach, Ventura and San Diego.
Future Fish and Game Commission meetings are set for Sacramento, San Diego and Atascadero (just north of San Luis Obispo). Moving meetings around on a monthly basis to foster public participation certainly makes a lot of sense.
California, after all, is a large state. Driving from San Diego to Smith River, for example, would require at least 14 hours of driving (passing through Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area along the way.) Hosting a meeting one month in California’s northern coastal counties one month and then in points due south in other months would certainly give multiple constituents the opportunity to let their respective voices be heard.
The concept of a traveling policy-governing (or policymaking) agency is not necessarily a foreign concept. Bobby Shriver, the former Santa Monica mayor and nephew of John F. Kennedy, proposed a rotating meeting schedule during his run for Los Angeles County Supervisor in 2014. Residents of Lancaster, a Los Angeles County municipality, were about 75 miles away from the supervisorial meetings in Downtown L.A. Bringing a meeting to the Antelope Valley, Shriver argued, would help make the county government more accessible to its constituents.
(There have been attempts to split the northern portions of Los Angeles County into two, with a proposed Canyon County to represent cities and communities such as Lancaster, Palmdale, Quartz Hill, Acton and Santa Clarita.)
The Coastal Commission’s website states meetings are rotated to give as many people access to monthly meetings as possible – and every effort is made, according to the agency, to keep the agenda as local as possible each month in hopes of avoiding a Crescent City matter from being deliberated in Los Angeles or San Diego.
Rotating monthly meetings across the state certainly makes a lot of sense – yet, as with any operation, the system isn’t perfect.
A Coastal Commission deliberation to fire the agency’s executive director in February 2016 was held in Morro Bay, a small city on the Central California coast, roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Deliberating the dismissal of the agency’s executive director – who had supporters from all over the state – on the state’s central coast, in principal, would appear to be a fair compromise.
Accusations still flew of the Coastal Commission deliberately stunting the public’s involvement in any deliberations of Dr. Charles Lester’s future by hosting his fate-determining session in a city with limited access by air or ground, not to mention a three- to four-hour drive from either Los Angeles or San Francisco.
The other fissure in all of this is economics. It’s one thing to spray meetings all over the state in the name of equal access. Yet is access truly equal when the finances of attending a meeting might be out of reach for the agency’s constituents?
Both the Coastal Commission and Fish and Game Commission conduct two- or three-day public meetings. Each session, once called to order in the morning, could continue deep into the evening – meaning appearance on an agenda item could require arriving one day before and leaving the day after deliberations.
Travel and lodging expenses associated with attending a Coastal Commission meeting – especially if multiple days are required – could easily cost a few hundred dollars, at least. This doesn’t factor in time potentially taken off work.
Perhaps there are Californians out there who don’t have the means to attend a Coastal Commission or Fish and Game Commission meeting. Just the same there might also be Californians who don’t have internet access or otherwise lack the means to watch a Coastal Commission meeting live.
What happens when an agenda item directly affects someone but they cannot afford the airfare or gasoline costs to make the trip to a Coastal Commission meeting in Seaside or a Fish and Game Commission deliberation in Smith River?
One practice both commissions can borrow from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is to institute satellite meetings each month, where constituents who are geographically distant from deliberations can still participate live from a remote location convenient to them.
To be fair the Fish and Game Commission does institute this practice during some of its meetings. Yet the Coastal Commission has recently been on a soapbox demanding developers, in the name of public access, to make their projects more affordable for low-income users. What more could the agency do to continue making its deliberative process as accessible to people it continuously states to be defending?