Coastal Commission Ethics Under Fire in San Diego

SAN DIEGO (CN) — A member of the California Coastal Commission recounted in a civil trial Thursday a meeting he had with U2 guitarist The Edge at a concert in Dublin just before the Coastal Commission approved the musician’s development permit in Malibu.

When Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor asked Commissioner Mark Vargas if he he’d been a fan of U2 before meeting David Evans — The Edge — at the private ex parte meeting thousands of miles away from California, Vargas said he’d been a longtime fan and had been to several concerts in the United States.

Vargas’ meeting with The Edge and other private communications between current and former Coastal Commissioners is under scrutiny in a bench trial that began in San Diego this week.

Vargas and fellow commissioners have been accused by the watchdog group Spotlight on Coastal Corruption of failing to follow a provision of the state’s Coastal Act, which requires commissioners to promptly report private meetings with citizens or companies lobbying for their causes. Commissioners must publicly the report the meetings within a week or face fines.

If Vargas and Commissioner Erik Howell, and/or former Commissioners Steve Kinsey, Martha McClure and Wendy Mitchell are found to have violated the Coastal Act they could be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars in civil penalties.

Private meetings by commissioners have come under fire in recent years, as environmentalists accused officials of kowtowing to developers rather than uphold the Coastal Act. The issue came to a head when the Commission voted to remove its popular executive director Charles Lester in 2016.

In the following months, many commissioners opted not to take ex parte meetings. But several new commissioners have been appointed since 2016, and the majority continue to meet privately with people, according to the Coastal Commission website. Vargas is among the commissioners who continue to accept ex parte meetings.

A state Senate bill seeking to prohibit such private meetings did not pass in 2016.

Attorney Cory Briggs, representing the watchdog group, embarked on a tedious line of questioning Thursday, asking Vargas about the circumstances of multiple ex parte meetings he has had since he was appointed to the Commission in 2013.

For some of the meetings, Vargas signed and dated disclosure forms after the seven days he was given to turn them in. Under questioning by Briggs, Vargas said he could not remember why he had turned in the disclosures late.

Vargas said it was generally his practice to turn in his disclosure forms to Commission staff members the day he signed and dated them. He said the meetings he held were generally 15 to 20 minutes long.

“I generally remember sending these, all of them, I just can’t tell you if I did or did not, with proof,” Vargas said.

When Briggs resumed the same line of questioning after a break, Judge Taylor interrupted, calling it “repetitive” and “cumulative,” and saying Briggs was “boring me to death.”

Moving on to the meeting with The Edge, Vargas said he met in a private room with the guitarist and his wife at the stadium before the concert. He said they discussed The Edge’s application to build on Sweetwater Mesa in Malibu.

The Coastal Commission allowed Evans to build on the 151-acre site he’d purchased in the Santa Monica Mountains. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge upheld the Commission’s decision.

Vargas attended the concert after the meeting with Evans. He told Judge Taylor he bought the ticket to see the show.

The trial is expected to last through next week.

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