Calif. Senate Blocks Secret Coastal Commission Deals

     SACRAMENTO (CN) — Seeking to close a loophole that allows private meetings between lobbyists and California Coastal Commission members, lawmakers advanced a bill Monday that would shed light on backroom commission decisions and restrict “ex parte” communication.
     Senate Bill 1190 comes in response to the commission’s sudden and controversial February ouster of executive director Charles Lester, a decision made behind closed doors that led critics to accuse commissioners of being under the “undue influence” of developers.
     State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, said the bill will increase transparency within the beleaguered commission by forcing lobbyists to disclose private communications with the powerful regulator responsible for protecting public access to the Golden State’s 1,100 miles of coastline.
     Jackson said “quasi-lobbyists” often travel with commissioners in an attempt to sway them on coastal development decisions, and that the lobbying loophole has allowed the decision-making process to become “seriously flawed.”
     “This measure will reestablish due process and fairness at the commission,” Jackson said on the state Senate floor.
     Following Lester’s firing, environmentalists and lawmakers have rallied together and demanded reforms to the commission that was established by voters in 1972. Currently, ex parte communications with commission staff or commissioners is allowed as long as they are disclosed through a form or if they are verbally announced during a public hearing.
     Supporters of the bill claim these off-the-record conversations regarding building permits, enforcement penalties and other potential development items have tarnished the integrity of the commission.
     Former commissioner and current state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, said lobbyists often reached her at home and “overwhelmed” her during her stint on the commission. She noted that being a commissioner is a part-time job, typically just three days a month, and that while on the commission she was simultaneously a teacher and mayor of Agoura Hills.
     “I know the problem, and it appears it has gotten even worse,” Pavley said. “I unfortunately think we need this protection in place.”
     The reform proposal cleared the Senate 23-12 on a party-line vote. It moves to the state Assembly for further consideration.
     The bill was not supported by a single Republican, including state Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa. Moorlach said he dealt with commission while he was a county supervisor and that SB 1190 has the unintended potential to limit public discussion with the regulator.
     “I think we are probably overreacting to [Lester’s firing],” Moorlach said. “I find [commissioners] being fined for failing to make notification of an ex parte communication a little overboard.”
     Under SB 1190, any commissioner or alternate found to have attempted to influence commission staff reports would be barred from holding any state office.
     Jackson said SB 1190 is backed by current commissioners, who voted to support the measure earlier this month.
     Two other commission-related bills are currently moving through the Assembly.
     Assembly Bills 2002 and 2628 propose requiring paid consultants attempting to influence commission decisions to register with the state as lobbyists, and a one-year ban on former commissioners from lobbying or working for the regulator.
     The commission is still searching for a new executive director and has said it likely won’t find Lester’s permanent replacement until early 2017.

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