A local politician and California Coastal Commissioner entangled in controversy following the firing of Coastal Commission Director Charles Lester now has one more thing hanging over his head.
On April 18, an anonymous individual filed a complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) alleging that Pismo Beach City Councilmember and Coastal Commissioner Erik Howell violated a California ethics law by taking a campaign contribution from a powerful consultant and lobbying firm in the months before voting on several projects represented by that firm.
The complaint, which was obtained by New Times, has all of the filer’s personal information redacted. Jay Wierenga, FPPC communications director, confirmed the complaint was filed, and said it will become part of an open investigation into the matter. It cites a California government code that prohibits officials from receiving more than $250 from parties or other financially interested individuals during or three months after proceedings on the project. That code also says officials who receive more than $250 from a person or party must recuse themselves from decisions in which that person or party has a financial interest.
In September, Howell, who is running for re-election to the Pismo Beach City Council, received a $1,000 campaign contribution—the biggest he received in 2015—from Antoinette DeVargas, operations manager at McCabe & Company.
DeVargas is an employee of Susan McCabe, principal and founder of McCabe & Company who’s known to hold heavy sway on projects before the Coastal Commission.
In the immediate months following that campaign contribution, Howell cast several votes on projects that McCabe represented, including the October decision on the controversial bid for SeaWorld to expand its orca enclosure and the December decision on the multi-mansion Malibu development proposed by U2 guitarist Dave “The Edge” Evans.
In November, Howell voted in favor of a project slated for the coastal bluffs in Pismo Beach. The Pismo Beach City Council initially approved that project, proposed by Silver Shoals Investors LLC, in 2014.
Nearby residents then appealed it to the Coastal Commission.
Howell had originally opposed the project both as a City Council member and a coastal commissioner, but eventually gave it his support at the Coastal Commission’s November meeting.
McCabe represented that project, and was seen having dinner and drinks with Howell the evening before he voted to approve the project. That specific connection was the subject of an earlier FPPC complaint filed against Howell by several Pismo Beach residents in March.
All told, the complaint alleges Howell voted on five projects that McCabe either represented or had made ex parte communications with Howell on their behalf.
Howell did not respond to requests for comment.
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay