Coastal Commission head to step aside to fight cancer

A Coastal commissioner says the reduced presence of Executive Director Peter Douglas will not affect the function or makeup of the agency.

By Olivia Damavandi / Assistant Editor

The long-standing executive director of the California Coastal Commission this week announced he is stepping aside from the majority of his daily duties to battle a second round of cancer. The news has sparked questions about the future of the state agency and its tumultuous relationship with the City of Malibu.

Peter Douglas, 67, could not be reached for comment, but on Tuesday in an interview with the Los Angeles Times said he would begin chemotherapy this week to battle lung cancer. He said he would remain executive director and continue to be involved in decisions on most important issues, but will no longer attend monthly public meetings.

The commission makes the final decisions about various types of development along the coast. Douglas, who has served as the head of the commission since 1985, is highly influential in the outcome of such issues but does not vote on them. Coastal Commissioner and Malibu resident Sara Wan in a phone interview Tuesday said that is why his diminished role will not impact the function or makeup of the agency.

Wan said the commission was in the same situation five years ago when Douglas fought cancer for the first time.

“During his treatments Peter had made arrangements for the commission to continue to function, and he is planning on doing the same thing this time,” Wan said. “The commission functions under the Coastal Act and is mandated under the people of this state and I think this institution is strong enough to go forward [with or without Peter].”

Malibu City Councilmember John Sibert on Tuesday also said he didn’t expect any differences in the functionality of the commission due to Douglas’ absence.

“His imprint is on the commission forever, so I don’t expect any big changes,” Sibert said of Douglas. “He’s a very dedicated man, he’s a fighter. If anyone can beat this cancer, he can.”

Wan, a Malibu resident who has also has had a tumultuous relationship with the city, said Douglas’ complete or reduced absence from the commission would not affect its relationship with the City of Malibu.

The commission and the city have long butted heads over many issues, particularly those involving public access and land usage. The disputes include a lawsuit filed in 2008 against Douglas by the City of Malibu because of his support for an application for public overnight camping and other parks enhancements by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and its sister organization the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.

“The City of Malibu has misinterpreted things greatly in terms of where the source of friction is and what the role of Peter has been,” Wan said. “They like to point fingers at Peter but that’s not the issue. The issue is the City of Malibu simply doesn’t want to recognize that the commission exists. That’s going to cause friction with whoever assumes the role of executive director. As long as this city takes the position it doesn’t have to comply with the Coastal Act, there will be friction. I would like to see the relationship change but Peter’s role in that is not the issue.”

Malibu Mayor Jefferson Wagner acknowledged that he has both agreed and disagreed with some of Douglas’ past decisions.

“That’s why we have different levels of infrastructure; to protect the interest of the people,” Wagner said. “So there’s always going to be a little stepping on the toes occasionally between the Coastal Commission and the city.”

Wan also called it “premature” to begin debating who, if necessary, will replace Douglas.

“I’m worried personally for Peter, obviously,” Wan said. “Do I have concerns about what might happen for his succession? Of course. One always has to be concerned about that, but the commission is the [entity that] makes the decisions on who the executive director is and we have a relatively decent commission. I wouldn’t count Peter out yet anyway. He’s starting his treatment but has not gotten test results. He beat cancer five or six years ago and there’s no reason to believe he can’t beat it again.”

Wan declined to suggest any potential replacements to assume Douglas’ position. Sibert also declined any recommendations but said, “I just hope it’s someone we can work with.”

Wagner said he wished Douglas “the best in his health issues” and said Douglas “has been a terrific leader in the past.”

Wagner said that if needed, he hopes the successor to Douglas’ position is “somebody that can follow in his footsteps, possibly somebody who is familiar with his office and policy so that there is a continuation of good management of our resources.”

Wagner speculated the replacement could be “someone out of Douglas’ office or his attorney,” but suggested that his successor be “somebody outside the Coastal Commission because the commissioners that are there now are very familiar and they need to stay in place because of all the education on all the projects before them. So if somebody new came in it wouldn’t be such a change.

“We need a fresh face, too,” Wagner continued. “I think we could look forward to a new bonding in the near future if a commissioner with fresh ideas came into the appointment. I think the important thing is for city and the Coastal Commission to start to recognize that neither one of us is the same entity we were 10 or 15 years ago. We’ve got 27 miles of coast and we want to be good stewards of it like they do, so it’s important we work with them.”

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