When the California Coastal Commission met Feb. 10 in Morro Bay, throngs of coastal advocates from across the state descended on the Morro Bay Community Center, and delivered a fiery defense of then-executive director Charles Lester, whose job was on the line.
In advance of that meeting, reporters painted the showdown as an attempted coup by commissioners cozy with developers, and who didn’t appreciate Lester’s strict adherence to the Coastal Act.
At the meeting, a number of commissioners – including Dayna Bochco, who ultimately voted against firing Lester – lashed out at the media, saying their portrayal of the saga was off-base.
“I think the press did a horrible job,” she said, before the commissioners voted 7-5 to fire Lester.
In the months since, reporters from the Los Angeles Times have stayed on the attack, in particular columnist Steve Lopez. Some things they have since uncovered make a compelling case that Bochco was wrong:
Two commissioners, Martha McClure and Erik Howell, accepted campaign donations in 2012 from Antoinette Vargas, the business and domestic partner of Susan McCabe, a prominent lobbyist for coastal developers. The donations are now the subject of Fair Political Practices Commission investigations. (McClure lost a re-election campaign for her Del Norte County supervisor seat June 7 by a 2-to-1 margin.)
McCabe, in 2012, helped the commission obtain 23 hotel rooms for a meeting in San Diego on an overbooked week; at the time, McCabe was representing the hotel in a $100 million expansion project pending commission approval.
Commissioner Mark Vargas, meanwhile, hung out with U2 guitarist David Evans in Ireland last year, just weeks before the commission approved Evans’ proposed mansion in Malibu.
State lawmakers have introduced two bills related to the Coastal Commission that seek to increase transparency. One would ban commissioners from meeting with project proponents or opponents.
Another bill, co-authored by Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, would force those lobbying the commission to register as lobbyists, effectively closing an existing loophole. Stone, who served on the commission from 2009-12, says he was lobbied all the time when he was a commissioner.
“A lot of the problems that have arisen over the last year are indicative of a significant amount of outside influence on the commission by lobbyists,” he says.
Stone’s bill was approved by the Assembly June 3 with a 54-21 vote, and next heads to State Senate committees.