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Lobbying the coast

The Coastal Commission's firing of its executive director means it's time for some serious changes

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The true reason for Dr. Charles Lester’s dismissal in December 2015 (not Feb. 10, 2016, more later) as executive director of the California Coastal Commission is that he performed his duties too conscientiously. His job entailed preservation of the coast and he performed it superbly. However, this is not what mega-buck developers and their sympathizers on the commission wanted; he had to be eliminated.

Pedro Nava, a past member of the Coastal Commission stated, “I think what has developed over time is a culture of cozy”—lobbyists representing some of the richest people and corporations are too close to some commissioners. Sara Wan, also a former commissioner, put it this way, “By and large the commissioners are working with and listening to people who are professionals [lobbyists] and are paid to travel up and down the state [to attend commission meetings], and the public is at a huge disadvantage.”

The culture of coziness with developers and their lobbyists coupled with minimal regard for avoiding conflict of interest permeates most of the commission. Commissioner Wendy Mitchell has her own consulting firm. Her website declares, “Strategy. Connections. Results.” She said that when her clients’ projects come before the commission she recuses herself. It is fertile ground for the consultant on the dais to do favor to the consultant on the floor with the expectation that favor would be returned later.

Unlike other California agencies, lobbyists are free to lobby individual commissioners about pending cases. Commissioners have private meetings with the rich and famous to discuss their projects. U2’s guitarist The Edge met with Commissioner Mark Vargas in Ireland to lobby for his five-mansion Malibu project on an untouched Malibu hilltop. The project was later approved. Commissioner Mitchell posed for a picture with The Edge and his wife and apologized for the time it took for the project’s approval. Steve Blank, a commissioner from 2007 to 2013, stated that lobbyists would text or email the commissioners during the meetings. “It happened all the time when I was on the commission.”

It is by design that the staff is insulated from the commissioners. This safeguards their independence and freedom from political pressure, essential for them to provide objective and well-reasoned recommendations. As an example, the staff recommended rejection of the Port of San Diego project strongly supported by Commissioner Patrick Kruer. After the staff questioned him about his brother’s financial involvement in the project, Kruer abstained from voting and the commission rejected the project on a 5-5 vote. It reconfirms the importance of insulating the staff from political appointees. 

The commission’s decisions indicate a troubling pattern. Commissioners denied 26 projects in 2006 alone. In the past four years, commissioners have denied a total of 24 projects. This is a staggering decline by any measure.

The Coastal Commission’s website states that the mission of the commission is protecting and enhancing California’s coast. And the commission does it through “strong public participation” and other measures. Despite fierce public opposition to Lester’s firing, he was fired. Clearly the commission violated its own mission.

The commission received an outpouring of support for Lester from many quarters, including 17,000 letters from the public; letters from 36 former commissioners including 2 chairs; 16 state legislators; 10 members of the U.S. Congress; 153 (out of a total of 160) commission staff members; and 50 environmental and social justice groups. The commission arrogantly ignored the avalanche of support and took the action that suited its own agenda.

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins labeled the attempt to dismiss Lester as “politically motivated.” Assemblymember Marc Levine noted that the commissioners “disregarded any number of staff recommendations” on development proposals and “should be taking a closer look at themselves” before blaming Lester. Assemblymember Mark Stone, a former commissioner, succinctly went straight to the core. “It is not a performance issue,” he stated. Former commissioner Wan said, “We know they’ve been pushing in that direction for a while, and that’s what it is all about: taking over control of the commission and undermining its independence, and eventually turning the coast over to the development and energy industries.” 

A sitting commissioner bluntly stated that Lester is being targeted because some commissioners want to run the show and Lester is no pushover. Steve Blank, another former commissioner, said that toward the end of his term in 2013, commissioners lobbied one another and staff members with “talking points” handed to them by developers’ lobbyists.

The “vote” taken on Feb. 10 was a farce to deceive people. The decision to terminate Lester’s employment had already been made last December in a closed session. Commissioners Vargas and Mitchell were ringleaders of the group for Lester’s ouster. Commission Chairman Steve Kinsey said in an interview that during the December closed session, “a distinct majority of commissioners wanted to consider his employment.” Mark Gold, associate chancellor of environment and sustainability at UCLA, received a call offering him Lester’s position over a month before the Feb. 10 “vote.” He summarily rejected the offer. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” was his response. 

People familiar with the matter told the Los Angeles Times that the move to ouster Lester was “led by pro-development panel.” A majority of the commissioners claimed that laws prohibited them from discussing the matter and taking the Feb. 10 vote in an open session. Therefore, they had no choice but to do it in a closed session. It was a blatant lie. In fact, the commission’s Chief Counsel Chris Pederson advised the commissioners that they may discuss any current issues involving Lester’s performance in the open session because he had chosen a public hearing to defend himself. Pederson’s examples included “their [commissioners] own current thoughts regarding the executive director … and any other issues that they think are relevant.”

Assemblymember and former commissioner Stone stated: “It feels like there were alternative motives to what happened—and all of that shows that decisions and the activities of the commission were not all above board.”

Former Commissioner Blank made a prophetic statement when he resigned in 2013 that the commission was in danger of being captured by the interests it regulates. Blank said in January, “These are commissioners whose interests are not aligned with those of 40 million people (who share the coast); they’re aligned with very narrow interest of developers.” After the Morro Bay hearing, he said: “This has been a civics lesson for the public in how regulatory bodies get captured by developers.”

A person with excellent environmental knowledge, well-informed on California law, and experience with coastal policy would be very difficult to find under normal circumstances. Assuming there is such a highly qualified person, what are the chances of success in recruiting him/her in the aftermath of the disgraceful manner in which Lester was dismissed?

Commissioners had a responsibility to present to the public sound and substantial professional reasons for taking such an extreme action. The California Coastal Act of 1976 and the mission of the Coastal Commission is protecting and enhancing California’s coast. The important question is: How did Lester violate the act and commission’s mission? A credible response requires factual information: A logical narrative supported by statistical data and analysis. Commissioners’ perfunctory complaints are embarrassingly vague and shallow. They do not justify the drastically tumultuous action taken that metaphorically caused an earthquake registering 9 on the Richter scale. 

Lester was respected for his knowledge and expertise and also enjoyed near-unanimous (153 out of 160) staff support. A decent, capable, and hardworking professional was put through an ordeal that he certainly did not deserve.

The commission’s modus operandi is typical of third world countries: ignoring conflicts of interest, secret dealings with lobbyists, accepting campaign contributions from improper sources, madcap actions to grab power for controlling the commission’s recommendations, appeasing developers and lobbyists at a great cost to the coast, being tone-deaf to people’s voice thus destroying public trust, claiming transparency while cowardly voting in a closed session, penalizing the executive director and the staff for adherence to the Coastal Act—these are just some of the sordid examples.

Newton’s third law of motion states: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This physics law can appropriately be applied here. When the Coastal Commission pushes the people, the people will push back on the commission equally hard.

There is a silver lining to this fiasco. Five days after the public hearing ended on Feb. 11, Assembly Speaker Atkins and Assemblymembers Stone and Levine introduced AB 2002. The bill has at least 10 coauthors and is gaining support. If passed, it would fill the void in commissioner accountability and require some penetrating disclosures from the lobbyists such as who they work for, their pay, and the issue on which they are trying to influence the commission. 

Both Stone and Levine are former commissioners. Stone observed, “I think one of the things that became very apparent after that hearing last week is that there are some very, very cozy relationships between certain lobbyists and certain commissioners that are not being disclosed. This bill would help force some of the disclosures.” 

It is about time. 

Zaf Iqbal contributes a commentary to New Times the first week of every month. He is past associate dean and professor emeritus of accounting at Cal Poly’s Orfalea College of Business. Zaf volunteers with several nonprofit organizations, including Wilshire Hospice, Good Neighbor Program, and Mentoring Program for At Risk Youth at the Pacific Beach High School. He is Partner for the Future at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and past president of the San Luis Obispo Democratic Club. Send comments to zafiqbalslo@gmail.com.

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