Developers Coast To Victory On Coastal Commission Reform Defeat

Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson’s valiant effort, SB-1190, to ban ex parte communications between developers and commissioners at the California Coastal Commission, and AB 2002, an Assembly group effort to limit ex parte meetings and require developers' contract spokespeople to register as lobbyists, died on the last night of the legislative session.

It's no wonder, given the scale of donations to the California Democratic Party from those interested in building and developing along the coast.

Jackson’s bill was in response to the unceremonious firing of the commission’s executive director Charles Lester, who tried to protect 1,100 miles of coastline and endangered habitat by sensibly shaping land use. Industry was not a fan of Lester's.

The California Real Estate PAC donated $690,000 to the California Democratic Party on February 11. That night, Lester got the boot. Observers cried foul—accusing commissioners of capture by developers. Several Brown appointees to the Commission were among those that reportedly led the charge against Lester. Brown's Natural Resources Director, Janelle Beland, who was  involved in the firing of two other administration officials at the behest of the oil industry, also has a non-voting role on the Commission.
By the time SB-1190 died, the bill had gone from banning ex parte communications to allowing them during on-site developer visits.

Making sausage is never pretty, and neither is the fact that donations lubricate the legislative process and can also influence the executive branch’s regulatory appointments and decisions, as demonstrated in our report, Brown’s Dirty Hands.

Two weeks before SB-1190 was amended to reform the Coastal Commission, the State Building and Construction Trades Council - with interest in the jobs spurred by coastal development - donated $75,000 to the CDP.

The California State Council of Laborers PAC, CA State Pipe Trades Council, and CA State Association of Electrical Workers gave the CDP a total of $90,000 between March 18 and March 24, four days before. The International Union of Operating Engineers made a donation of $25,000 to the CDP on March 28, the same day that Jackson’s tough language was unveiled, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers made a donation to the CDP of $50,000 a week later.

On May 3, the legislation was amended to remove hefty fines proposed for ex parte communications. The California State Council of Laborers PAC, CA State Pipe Trades Council, and CA State Association of Electrical Workers kicked in $88,000 in CDP donations between May 13 and May 26. The Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters PAC donated $50,000 in two installments on May 12 and May 13. Each entity has an interest in construction and development along the coast.

By August 17, the bill was weakened in the Assembly to allow commissioners to make on site developer visits where communications would be limited to commissioners and their staff. Even in this weakened form, the bill mustered just 12 votes on the Assembly Floor.

Ballot measure committees have become a way for legislators to get around strict limits on political contributions. The principle applies to Governor Brown as well. The Southwest Carpenters pitched in $50,000 for Governor Brown’s Propositions 1&2 to raise billions through the sale of water bonds and boost savings in the state’s rainy day fund. The Electrical Workers gave the ballot measure committee $150,000. Then there's Aera Energy, a big California oil and gas company, who donated a total of $550,000 to Governor Brown's Prop 30 to raise taxes and Props 1&2.

Aera Energy wants to develop one of the last relatively intact wetland ecosystems in Southern California, despite decades of oil production despoiling it. Lester, the fired executive director, put a brake on the senstive Newport Banning Ranch project. The staff under Lester recommended that much of the Orange County tract be protected under the state Coastal Act as an Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area because of an “incredibly unique array” of sensitive habitats and species.

The post-Lester commission recommends that the project go forward, albeit on a smaller scale.

Ex parte communications appear to be standard fare in shaping pro-developer outcomes, judging by the fact that the commission was recently slapped with at least four lawsuits challenging its decisions partly on those grounds.  

Jerry Brown, former governor and former Democratic Party Chaired, acknowledged back in 1994 that money changes minds. “You bet I was influenced….You think you can collect $10 million or $20 million and not let it affect your judgment? Your behavior is influenced, and that is the vice that is destroying us.”

Sadly, some evidence suggests that he may still be influenced today by companies with interests in development, just as Brown’s Dirty Hands presents evidence that he may have been influenced by nearly $10 million in energy industry donations since he became Governor to slow a transition away from fossil fuels.

Donations to legislators and Governors don’t hurt in keeping those relationships close and the public in the dark. That’s why legislation that runs counter to those interests tends to die an abrupt death.

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