Lawsuit Alleges Coastal Commissioners Fail to Disclose Private Meetings

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California Coastal Commission

After a decade of back-and-forth, debate, compromise and furor, the Malibu Edge Project—so called because the property is owned by U2 rocker Dave “The Edge” Evans—was finally approved in a unanimous vote in December 2015. 

Now, a nonprofit watchdog group called Spotlight on Coastal Corruption is questioning whether one of the commissioners who approved the project properly disclosed his meeting with The Edge before a U2 concert in Ireland just days before.

Commissioner Mark Vargas disclosed his meeting with Evans via a “two-sentence explanation for the visit on a form that requires ‘complete and comprehensive’ accounts,” according to reporting from outspoken LA Times columnist Steve Lopez in 2016. But plaintiffs argue that type of disclosure does not meet the standards presented in the Coastal Act.

Cory Briggs, attorney for Spotlight, used that disclosure as an example in court last week as arguments began in the case, which also lists Commissioner Erik Howell and former commissioners Steve Kinsey, Martha McClure and Wendy Mitchell as defendants. 

“The defendants’ lack of transparency is a crime against democracy,” Briggs said in his opening remarks, according to an article published in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The commissioners’ attorney—State Deputy Attorney General Joel Jacobs—argued that commissioners were not intentionally breaking the law, even if they did occasionally fail to fully disclose private meetings.

“When the commissioners did not strictly comply with the Coastal Act requirements, it was not for the purpose of deceiving anyone or hiding anything,” Jacobs said Tuesday, according to the Union-Tribune.

The hearing began last Tuesday, Feb. 27, in San Diego Superior Court, with Jacobs defending the five current and former commissioners. 

The Coastal Commission is made up of 12 appointed commissioners who volunteer for their positions and are unpaid. Jacobs pointed out at the trial that the defendants had “no financial incentive to cozy up to developers or others,” according to the Union-Tribune.

Written into the Coastal Act is  a stipulation that commissioners must fully disclose private meetings—ex-parte communications—regarding items the commission expects to vote on. 

Specifically: “No commission member, nor any interested person, shall conduct an ex parte communication unless the commission member fully discloses and makes public the ex parte communication by providing a full report of the communication to the executive director within seven days after the communication or, if the communication occurs within seven days of the next commission hearing, to the commission on the record of the proceeding at that hearing.”

Spotlight says these commissioners violated the Coastal Act “hundreds” of times—and since fines can reach $7,500 per violation, they are asking for a payout around $3 million.

Briggs particularly took exception to a settlement deal offered to Spotlight by Jacobs “on behalf of his boss, Xavier Becerra”—$250,000 of taxpayer money.

“Taxpayers don’t pay for public officials’ speeding tickets,” Briggs said in a statement, according to the LA Times. “Why should the taxpayers pay any other fine imposed on a public official when he or she breaks the law? And why is Xavier Becerra defending them for free and trying to protect their personal pocketbooks?”

However, the state has a long history of defending its employees in lawsuits—the theory being that unpaid employees could not be retained without a certain degree of defense by the state. 

Because of controversy surrounding ex-parte communications, many commissioners now choose to do away with the practice altogether, according to courthousenews.com.

“Private meetings by commissioners have come under fire in recent years, as environmentalists accused officials of kowtowing to developers rather than uphold the Coastal Act. The issue came to a head when the Commission voted to remove its popular executive director Charles Lester in 2016,” courthousenews wrote. “In the following months, many commissioners opted not to take ex-parte meetings. But several new commissioners have been appointed since 2016, and the majority continue to meet privately with people, according to the Coastal Commission website. Vargas is among the commissioners who continue to accept ex parte meetings.”