Coastal commissioners’ ethics questioned in two counties

Sara Wan is accused of bias regarding issues pertaining to Broad Beach and to Dana Point.

A Broad Beach homeowner says Commissioner Sara Wan should recuse herself from Broad Beach issues because of a blatant bias. Meanwhile, the Dana Point city manager says Wan acted inappropriately by advising an organization on how to go about suing the commission in response to its approval of a project in the Orange County city.

By Jonathan Friedman/Assistant Editor

California Coastal Commissioner Sara Wan has sparked anger in at least two people from two counties in recent months. Dana Point City Manager Douglas Chotkevys and Trancas Property Owners Association member Marshall Grossman have written scathing letters about Wan’s behavior, with Chotkevys’ letter being addressed to Coastal Commission Chair Mike Reilly and Grossman’s letter being addressed to Wan and Coastal Commission attorney Ralph Faust. The three letters (Grossman has sent two) are similar in complaint, accusing Wan of having a bias.

Grossman sent his first letter last month, asking Wan to recuse herself from voting on any Broad Beach issues because she is biased. The area is represented by the Trancas Property Owners Association. Grossman said he did not receive a response to this letter. He then sent a second letter with the same request. Grossman’s evidence of bias was based on information contained on a Web site for the Wan Conservancy, an organization run by Wan and her husband, former Malibu Mayor Larry Wan.

“The Web page states that Broad Beach homeowners employ ‘fences and armed security guards,’ neither of which is true,” Grossman wrote. “These falsehoods are surrounded by self-aggrandizing headlines, ‘Showdown at Broad Beach!’ and ‘How Sara Wan took on the Barons of Broad Beach!'”

The Malibu Times has obtained printed pages from the Web site confirming that this information was on the site as late as Sept. 2. However, the information is no longer on the site. Grossman suggested Wan removed the material because of his letter.

“Unfortunately, she can’t rewrite history,” Grossman said. “The fact that the Web site has been purged of the incriminating information doesn’t change the facts. And she would have been better off simply stepping down from the Coastal Commission, so that she could devote her efforts to the important causes of her nonprofit.”

Wan was in Washington, D.C. this week, and unavailable for comment. Larry Wan said he was unaware of any changes being made to the Web site because of Grossman’s letter. He added that he and Sara Wan do not maintain the Web site, and what is put on it is left in the hands of the Webmaster.

“Things get posted and unposted,” Larry Wan said. “I don’t generally deal with maintaining the Web site.”

Grossman said, in addition to Broad Beach issues, Wan should recuse herself from Malibu issues in general that go before the Coastal Commission because of a message on her site, which also has since been removed, that stated, “The tiny city of Malibu went ahead and authorized spending a whopping $250,000 this year (nearly $25 for every man, woman and child in the town) on lobbyists to undermine state coastal resource protection standards.”

Coastal Commission attorney Faust could not be reached for comment on the Web site and Grossman’s second letter. Regarding the first letter, he said that a commissioner needs only to recuse herself from an item if she has a financial interest. Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas said Wan has never done anything that would require her to recuse herself from Broad Beach issues.

“The question of bias is one for the courts,” he said. “If there is bias, that’s hard to prove. The general practice and the general advice are not to participate if there is a bias. The question is what’s [considered] biased.”

Douglas said he disagreed with Grossman that Wan proved a bias with last year’s incident at Broad Beach when she sat on the beach with a Los Angeles Times reporter and photographer looking on. Wan was approached by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies, who said she was sitting on private property. She then informed them that the property was actually public. The incident was reported the next day in the Los Angeles Times with an article and a photo essay.

“All she did was say that the public had the right to be on that part of beach,” Douglas said. “That doesn’t have anything to do with bias.”

Battle at Dana Point

The Dana Point city manager’s contention with Wan was due to her allegedly advising the San Clemente chapter of the Surfrider Foundation on how to proceed with a lawsuit against the Coastal Commission over its approval of a development in the Orange County city in January. Chotkevys’ allegation was based on an e-mail he obtained that was written by Surfrider Foundation chapter member Mike Lewis to Surfrider attorney Todd Cardiff that read, “I talked with Sara Wan afterwards and received some good advice on how to proceed with [the] suit.”

In a June 7 letter to Coastal Commission Chair Reilly, Chotkevys wrote, “What, if any, circumstances make it appropriate for a commissioner to leave the dais and provide advice to an opposition group as to how to proceed with a lawsuit against the very commission she sits on?”

Wan responded to Chotkevys on July 30 with a letter of her own. She wrote that she had spoken to the Surfrider members, but did not give them legal advice. However, she wrote that had she done so, it would not have been inappropriate.

“My discussion was many hours after the final vote had been taken,” Wan wrote.

Douglas said he agrees that Wan did nothing wrong and called Chotkevys’ allegation silly. He said the Coastal Commission staff would not be looking into the matter as Chotkevys requested.

“Commissioners talk to applicants, the applicants’ representatives and environmentalists,” Douglas said. “They talk to them all the time about matters pending before the commission.”