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Governor Tries to Stack Coastal Commission

Earlier this month, the California Coastal Commission elected a new chairman. Normally, this event would have gone unnoticed, but the election came as the result of an unusually contentious process that forced out the former chair, an ardent  environmentalist, who had challenged the State's power structure.

The California voters created the Coastal Commission in 1972 through an initiative process that brought into effect laws to protect the coast as well as the ability to access and enjoy it. It was and continues to be the strongest piece of environmental legislation in the country.

These laws, known as the Coastal Act, gave the Commission the power of approval over all development along the coast. It also set up an unusual process for the appointment of its own commissioners. The authors of the Coastal Act knew that the extraordinary power of the Commission made it susceptible to corruption and they endeavored to prevent it from being controlled by any one branch of state government by distributing the appointment powers between the governor, the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee and the Speaker of the Assembly. They each appoint four commissioners apiece.

The leadership struggle within the Commission came at the same time that Governor Gray Davis' exploitation of the coast for campaign contributions has been documented.  Press reports on campaign records show the governor to have received $8.3 million, nearly 9 percent of his campaign money ($93.67 million), from parties with projects before the Coastal Commission. In at least half the cases, the timing of the donations correlated strongly to permits appearing on the Coastal Commission agenda.

A partial list of the major Davis donors with pending or approved development proposals before the Commission includes billionaire music mogul David Geffen, Clint Eastwood, former L.A. mayor's wife Nancy Riordan Daily, Gary Winnick, CEO of bankrupt Global Crossing and Jerrold Perrenchio, billionaire CEO of Univision.

Though he denies it, the obvious connection between Governor Gray Davis' campaign contributors and the approval of coastal development permits cannot be overlooked. These correlations were documented in an October 20, 2002, San Francisco Chronicle article by Lance Williams that stated, "of 96 permit applications involving the governor's donors that have come before the commission since Davis took office, 73 were approvedÖwhile 18 were postponed. Only five were denied." Jim Knox, executive director of Common Cause said, "donors wouldn't give if they didn't think that their contributions had an impact."

But this approval rate apparently wasn't enough to satisfy Davis. Via phone calls that were consistently denied, through Secretary of Resources Mary Nichols and in conjunction with Assembly Speaker Wesson, Davis worked to remove environmental activist Sara Wan as Commission Chair and replace her with David Potter, a contractor and pro-development commissioner from Monterey. Unfortunately, the plan misfired. Although Wan withdrew her name from consideration when she knew she did not have the votes to be re-elected, Potter, was also unable to secure a majority of votes from the Commission. He then withdrew his name from consideration and Mike Reilly, a moderate commissioner from Sonoma County, was unanimously elected chairman.

Could the silver lining in the ouster of Wan be that Davis' otherwise quiet movement to stack the Coastal Commission with development stooges got so out of control that it came to the attention of the press?

The pro-development direction in which the Coastal Commission was heading was no surprise to the small group of activists who haunt commission hearings. They saw the direction changing with Davis' appointments of Cynthia McClain-Hill in 1999 and Gregg Hart in 2000, two commissioners whose voting records in terms of protecting the coast are worse than anyone Governors Deukemejian or Wilson appointed. But up until now, the changes were too subtle for the public to discern. And the quiet moves toward a more development-oriented Commission probably would have continued had Davis only reappointed his only strongly environmental commissioner, Chris Desser. But he didn't and the alarm bells went off. Davis still has the option of replacing Desser, but any hope of the press not noticing is long past.

The next Coastal Commission meetings are in Los Angeles on January 7-10. It will be interesting to see if Desser is still on the commission by then. I would like to ask everyone to come and speak their mind.

It is hoped that Mike Reilly will be able to lead the Commission toward effective decisions. However, the loss of Sara Wan as Chair of the commission will be sorely felt by environmentalists for a long time.

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by Janet Bridgers
Founder/Director
Earth Alert