By Jennifer Savage | Published 2016/05/20
Notable items at the May California Coastal Commission meeting included a majority of Commissioners supporting legislation that would level the playing field between the public and developers, public outcry over the modified Newport Banning Ranch staff report, the hiring process for the Commission’s new Executive Director and a Santa Barbara appeal in which the Commission referred to the city's LCP in order to determine substantial issue existed and reinforcement of water responsibility.
Legislation – AB 2002 and SB 1190
The Commission’s Legislative Report covered the bills currently in play that could affect both the Coastal Act and the way the Coastal Commission operates, but two in particular inspired discussion among the Commissioners. AB 2002, introduced by Assemblymembers Toni Atkins, Mark Stone and Marc Levine immediately after the Commission fired former Executive Director Charles Lester requires any agent that lobbies the Commission to register as a lobbyist with the Fair Political Practices Commission. Technical experts, like geologists and planners, would not come under the purview of this legislation. The bill also requires that in the seven days prior to a public hearing on a specific matter, a Commissioner must report any ex parte communication within 24 hours, and no ex parte communications may occur in the 24 hours immediately preceding a public hearing.
The second bill, SB 1190, would ban ex parte communications with a Commissioner for quasi-judicial (think individual permit applications) and enforcement matters. Several of the Commissioners espoused the ability to have private conversations with interested individuals as a way to broaden the conversation around proposals. Commissioner Mark Vargas, for example, said he finds ex partes “useful for people… You have more time to talk.” Commissioner Roberto Uranga agreed. “I feel like we are public officials,” he said. “My policy is to be open to the public. We should be accessible.” Both voted against supporting either bill. Commissioners Mary Shallenberger and Carole Groom spoke in favor of the bills. “It’s about making sure every interested party has access to the same information in the same way… being responsible to the public,” Shallenberger said.
The Commission’s support of these bills came as recent news stories have reported the ongoing conflicts of interests and failures to report ex parte communications that have seemingly diminished the public’s confidence in the Commission. Specific examples include that the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) fined Commissioner Greg Cox $3,000 last month because his wife owned stock in Sea World Corporation when Cox was the only vote against forbidding the company from breeding Killer Whales and from relocating them between parks. Additionally, Commissioners Erik Howell and Martha McClure are currently under investigation by the FPPC for accepting money for their political campaigns from developer interests, and, in the case of McClure, failing to file required paperwork for nearly four years.
Additional criticism has been leveled at Commissioner Vargas for meeting with U2’s David “The Edge” Evans in Ireland, attending the band’s concert while there, shortly before approving Evans’ contentious Malibu project and writing only a couple of sentences about that Ireland-based ex parte meeting. Finally, Commission Chair Steve Kinsey may be prevented from voting on the similarly controversial Newport Banning Ranch project after failing to report two separate meetings with project developers for months, including one that prompted him to write an extensive letter to Commission staff questioning their evaluation of sensitive habitat areas on the property.
See the Vote Chart for the full breakdown of votes.
For the past three months, coastal advocates have testified that the hiring process for the Commission’s new Executive Director must include as much public participation as possible, must involve diverse stakeholders, including California Native American Tribes and communities of color, and that the process must be as transparent as possible. Both Commission staff and Commissioners have support those sentiments wholeheartedly.
In April, the Coastal Commission staff presented a draft of the Request for Proposal (RFP) that they will use to hire a search firm to perform a nationwide search for a new Executive Director. The Commission finalized the RFP at the May meeting, and hopes to secure a search firm later this summer.
Once the search firm is engaged, they will attend at least one Commission meeting to experience the diversity of interests and topics that the Commission addresses. Further, the Commission and its staff will bring forward for public comment the Position Description and Duty Statement for the Executive Director to ensure public input on these important documents.