SAN DIEGO (CN) – A former member of the California Coastal Commission testified Tuesday about his failure to disclose private meetings with developers which led to his recusal in a vote on a contentious coastal development in Orange County.
Steve Kinsey served on the California Coastal Commission from 2011 to 2016, including a stint as chairman. He is one of five current and former commissioners involved in a civil trial in San Diego brought by government watchdog group Spotlight on Coastal Corruption and its well-known environmental rights attorney Cory Briggs.
Spotlight claims the commissioners failed to follow a disclosure requirement in the Coastal Act requiring Coastal Commission members to notify the public of private meetings or discussions – known as ex parte communications – within seven days of the communication taking place.
If the commissioners are found to have violated the disclosure requirement of the Coastal Act they could be forced to pay civil penalties of up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Kinsey failed to disclose two ex parte meetings he had with the developers of the Newport Banning Ranch Project which proposed to clean up and redevelop an oil field in the Orange County city of Newport Beach. Kinsey ultimately recused himself from voting on the development, and the Coastal Commission denied approval of the project after a 12-hour public hearing in September 2016.
In San Diego Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor’s courtroom Tuesday, Kinsey acknowledged that while he believed he was honest during his tenure on the Coastal Commission and never intentionally withheld information, he did fail to disclose ex parte communications.
“The belated disclosures occurred in 2016 for activities that occurred in 2015,” Kinsey said when questioned by his attorney, Deputy Attorney General Joel Jacobs.
Kinsey said during that timeframe he was in the process of moving his 90-year-old parents from Arizona to live with his family. An architect and general contractor by trade, Kinsey said he was spending 20 hours a week overseeing construction of a small building for his parents to live on his property in addition to his duties for the Coastal Commission and his position as a Marin County supervisor.
Kinsey said his family situation “may help to explain” his actions, or inactions, at the time but was not an excuse for failing to follow the ex parte disclosure requirement in the Coastal Act.
“I am not representing it was a reason not to file my ex partes,” Kinsey said when Briggs questioned him on re-direct.
“There appears to be a number of ex parte disclosures not within the stated requirement of time.”
Environmental advocates opposed to the Newport Banning Ranch proposal saw Kinsey’s failure to disclose his ex parte meetings with the project developer as a sign the former commissioner was kowtowing to development interests.
The issue was revealed in an investigation by the Los Angeles Times. Kinsey later recused himself from voting on the project after fellow commissioner Dayna Bochco, who was also present at a meeting with Banning Ranch developers, reported the ex parte and Kinsey did not. Kinsey has maintained his failure to disclose the meetings was a mistake.
While Kinsey said in court Tuesday he has a “vivid understanding at this point” about reporting ex parte communications, he said he never received formal training on the disclosure requirement while he was a commissioner.
Kinsey said there was “no coaching, no counseling, no calling me out in any way on ex parte matters” by Coastal Commission staff.
Kinsey recounted dozens of ex parte communications he had with advocates who lobbied commissioners ahead of votes on their respective causes. He said he met with or talked to some advocates on up to 70 occasions.
The bench trial is expected to wrap up Wednesday.