As Erik Howell fights to get re-elected to his seat on the Pismo Beach City Council, he’ll also be battling on a second front in the California Court system.
Howell is one of five members of the California Coastal Commission named in a recently filed lawsuit accusing them of failing to properly disclose private contacts with parties who had businesses or projects before the commission.
Under California law, commissioners are required to disclose written or verbal communications with individuals, like lobbyists or activists, who have an interest in pending Coastal Commission business within seven days of the contact. The law refers to those as “ex parte communications,” and failure to disclose them can result in a fine of $7,500 per violation. The same law also states that a commissioner who fails to properly disclose ex parte communications but participates in a decision on the matter can also be fined $7,500 per violation.
The lawsuit, filed last month in San Diego County Superior Court on behalf of a nonprofit organization called Spotlight On Coastal Corruption, accuses Howell—along with commissioners Steve Kinsey, Martha McClure, Wendy Mitchell, and Mark Vargas—of repeatedly and knowingly violating the ex parte communication requirements, and calls on the court to slap them with millions of dollars in fines.
Those violations occurred despite commissioners receiving training on ex parte communication disclosure requirements, according to the lawsuit.
“Nonetheless, defendants consciously disregarded the requirements of [the law] based on the arrogant, corrupt belief that their ex parte conversations were none of the public’s business, at times using personal email to conceal the conversations,” stated the lawsuit, filed by Upland-based attorney Cory J. Briggs.
The lawsuit accuses Howell specifically of 48 violations of both laws, and asked the court to fine him $720,000. It also alleges that Howell knew he was in violation of the law and seeks an additional $2.8 million fine under another section of the California Coastal Act.
This isn’t the first time Howell has courted controversy as a coastal commissioner. He came under fire in March after revelations that he changed his position on a proposed development project before the Coastal Commission two months after receiving a $1,000 contribution to his City Council re-election campaign from an individual connected with a consultant representing that project applicant.
Howell indicated to New Times that he was unable to comment on the lawsuit. Coastal Commission officials said they were aware of the lawsuit and that it was being reviewed by the Office of the California Attorney General.