Opinion Columns & Blogs

Guilty coastal commissioners — including a Pismo councilman — may cost taxpayers $959,000 in legal fees

Pismo Beach City Councilman and Coastal Commissioner Erik Howell.
Pismo Beach City Councilman and Coastal Commissioner Erik Howell. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Where’s Oliver Hardy when you need him?

If Laurel’s partner were still around, and paying attention to the long-running California coastal corruption case, he’d have the perfect line at the ready.

“This is another nice mess you’ve gotten us into.”

The mess just keeps getting messier, too. For that, we can thank the state attorney general, whose handling of the case suggests “Keystone Kops” as much as “Laurel and Hardy.”

And we can thank three former and two current members of the California Coastal Commission. They were found guilty recently of violating rules regarding private meetings with individuals who have business before the all-powerful commission, which votes to approve or reject coastal development and land use applications.

Former Commissioner Steve Kinsey was fined $30,300.

Former Commissioner Wendy Mitchell was fined $7,100.

Former Commissioner Martha McClure was fined $2,600.

Commissioner Mark Vargas was fined $13,600.

Commissioner Erik Howell, a Pismo Beach City Council member, was fined $3,500.

But the tab runs way higher than that, because the judge in the case ruled that the commissioners must also pay $959,000 in attorney’s fees to the party that brought the suit against them.

And it’s not yet clear who’s going to pay that money. Will it be the guilty commissioners, or are they going to try to stick taxpayers with the tab, drawing it from the state general fund or the Coastal Commission budget?

The attorney general has filed an appeal, by the way, so get ready for Round 2, and more costs to taxpayers.

The $959,000 award will go to lawyer Cory Briggs and Spotlight on Coastal Corruption. The nonprofit sued the five commissioners, alleging hundreds of violations of transparency rules. The point of the lawsuit wasn’t just to hold the five accountable but to sanitize what had become a cesspool in which lobbyists swam too close to commissioners, sometimes attaching themselves like barnacles.

One day, early in the trial, former Commissioner Mitchell hissed at me on her way out of court. I can’t blame her, because I once wrote that her gift to California was her resignation from the commission. But she and the commissioners got a pretty good deal on their legal defense.

The lawsuit was filed against them individually, not against the Coastal Commission. The attorney general’s office argued that it represents the agency and had to represent the accused commissioners because “the allegations concern conduct within the scope of their responsibilities as commissioners.”

Excuse me, but repeatedly failing to report private meetings, failing to report them on time, and letting lobbyists write the accounts of those private meetings is not “conduct within the scope.”

It’s arrogant, reckless disregard.

In defending the accused, the attorney general’s office knew it was stepping into a minefield. In a Sept. 26, 2016, letter to the Coastal Commission, the attorney general said that if the commissioners lost the case and someone had to be held responsible for paying the assessed penalties and rewards, “that would present a conflict of interest for us” in determining whether that money should be paid by the commissioners or the agency (translation: taxpayers).

Then don’t take the case.

But of course the attorney general’s office did take the case, and what was the central component of its defense strategy?

To blame the Coastal Commission for the misdeeds of the accused commissioners.

Talk about conflicts of interest.

When the verdict came in, the bulk of the allegations were rejected by the judge, but enough of them stuck to give Spotlight on Coastal Corruption a victory that was cheered by coastal stewards up and down the state.

So why was the attorney general taking bows?

Because if the damages against the commissioners had been worse, they could have been assessed millions in penalties. And so the Attorney General’s Office argued that because of this partial victory, its own legal costs of roughly $650,000 should be paid by Spotlight on Coastal Corruption.

It was like arguing that you may have lost the World Series, but you did well enough to deserve a piece of the trophy.

As I said, it’s unclear who’s going to end up writing the checks for all of this nonsense, but I’d like to see the commissioners at the front of that line.

Stay tuned for the answers.

Until then, don’t forget that there is no compelling need for the private meetings — known as ex-parte communications — that prompted the Spotlight lawsuit. And yet although the current set of commissioners seems to run a cleaner operation than the last crew did, eight out of 12 of them still take ex-partes. To find out who they are, go to the agency website at coastal.ca.gov, click on commissioners, and shoot them an email if you like.

In a more transparent system, anyone who wants to present his or her perspective to a commissioner on any coastal issue can do so in writing. Those communications would then be posted on the commission website for all to see, with hired-gun lobbyists enjoying no advantage over average folks. Those who still want to speak up could do so at the meetings, in public, rather than in private.

If that’s the way things were done, there’d be no fine mess, and no need for Spotlight on Coastal Corruption.

Steve Lopez is a Los Angeles Times columnist.