Coastal Commission Could Pay $1 Million in Court Costs and Fees, Following Commissioners’ Error

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California Coastal Commission

Earlier this year, a San Diego Superior Court Judge ordered five current and former members of the California Coastal Commission to pay up for violating disclosure rules—but fines that started out around $60,000 have risen to more than 10 times that amount. It’s not clear whether those fees will be paid by the commission itself, though the suit was filed against the individual commissioners—statements from the commission appear to indicate taxpayers will be footing the bill.

This decision might spell trouble for the commission’s budget.

The lawsuit was originally brought by the Spotlight on Coastal Corruption, a citizens’ group represented by San Diego attorney Cory Briggs, in late 2016. Spotlight alleged that the commissioners had violated the law by failing to report ex parte contacts (any contact made outside of an official hearing) with people and/or entities that came before the commission; a San Diego superior court judge later upheld the claim following a six-day trial in May of this year. 

The attorney general’s office, which represented the commissioners, appealed on their behalf and asked Spotlight to pay legal and court fees; Judge Timothy Taylor rejected the appeal.

The commissioners in question will have to pay the following: 

• Commissioner Steve Kinsey—$30,300

• Commissioner Erik Howell—$3,500

• Commissioner Martha McClure—$2,600

• Commissioner Wendy Mitchell—$7,100

• Commissioner Mark Vargas—$13,600

They will also be responsible for paying $929,046.57 in attorneys’ fees and $30,261.11 in court fees, per the judge’s ruling.

In a statement to the Marin Independent Journal, a CCC spokesperson said, “The law entitles the commissioners to representation by the state absent malice, fraud or corruption. This commission agreed before the trial started to indemnify the defendants to the full extent.” 

In agreeing to indemnify the defendants, the commission will cover any loss incurred by them.

Commissioners are part of “a part-time, unpaid volunteer board that meets only three days a month at scattered locations,” according to the original opinion from the superior court judge—who appeared to place blame primarily on the shoulders of the commission, not commissioners themselves.

According to Spotlight’s website, it is looking into options to challenge the coastal commission’s 2016 agreement to pay the fines incurred by the commissioners—meaning taxpayers would not be on the hook for commissioners’ errors. 

On Sept. 11, Briggs sent a cease-and-desist letter to the commission on behalf of Spotlight, demanding “that it stop holding secret meetings to discuss [Spotlight’s] lawsuit—a lawsuit to which the commission is not a party.”

On Sept. 25, Briggs sent a request for exculpatory evidence to a number of officials, including Senator Kamala Harris and Attorney General Xavier Becerra, to prove that they did not have any knowledge or hand in the 2016 agreement. The officials have until Oct. 9 to respond.