Last Dog Standing
Shootout at Coastal Commission Corral
SHOOT LOW: I’ve never met Wendy Mitchell, but I’m told she’s scary funny. When she laughs, even cynics weep. By day, Mitchell is one of Sacramento’s premier influence peddlers, paid handsomely as a government affairs consultant by the sort of people who have affairs with government and can pay handsomely for the exchange of bodily secretions. She also serves on the California Coastal Commission, first at the behest of former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and more recently at the instigation of Governor Jerry Brown. Mitchell is widely credited for instigating the bloodless decapitation of Charles Lester, executive director of the California Coastal Commission, at last week’s commission in Morro Bay.
While neither Lester’s nor Mitchell’s are household names, the political assassination of the former by the latter was the California equivalent of offing the Pope. In the realm of state politics, the Coastal Commission functions much like the Vatican, a state within a state and an infuriatingly independent one at that. The commission’s jurisdiction is 1,100 miles of the planet’s most expensive and coveted real estate and home to roughly 85 percent of California’s 38 million inhabitants. The commission exists defiantly outside of all that is Sacramento, midwifed into being 44 years ago by California’s initiative process to protect the coast from biologically irresistible development pressures. Since then, they’ve only gotten worse.
When the commission voted 7-to-5 last Wednesday to fire Lester for crimes conspicuously left unspecified, they did so despite impassioned pleas on Lester’s behalf by 35 former Coastal Commission members, 95 percent of the commission’s present staff, 19 members of the state legislature, about 500 eco-activist types, and just enough members of the propertied class and landed gentry to say they were there. But for some smirking and eyeball rolling, Mitchell was uncharacteristically quiet. Like the other victors, she provided no bill of particulars to justifying the ax swung into the back of Lester’s neck.
We heard how Lester and his staff were slow to return phone calls and other such vagaries, but from other commissioners. Or how it took too long for certain developments to secure the necessary approvals. These trended toward the gargantuan — like the 10,000-square-foot dream cottage concocted by U2’s The Edge that needed no fewer than five Malibu hilltops to be consummated. To celebrate The Edge’s eventual victory, Mitchell posed gleefully for a congratulatory selfie with the most self-important guitar player in the world’s most self-important rock band, exclaiming derisively how long it took.
At last Wednesday’s hearing, the anti-Lester commissars were asked to provide some scintilla of a modicum of evidence showing Lester’s flagrant disregard to justify the first execucide in the commission’s four-director history. Lester’s defenders — and the media — were roundly derided for propagating false “black-hat-white-hat” conspiracy theories. But no explanation was forthcoming why his can needed to be kicked so violently down the road. Even after the Coastal Commission’s own attorney provided a legal opinion giving the commissioners carte blanche to openly express their grievances, Mitchell and her fellow putschists declined. When a Lester supporter on the commission moved that their deliberations take place in public, Mitchell and her co-conspirators shut him down. In fact, they retreated behind doors rendered ironically closed only after yellow legal papers had been taped over any and all windows. The rest, as they say, is history.
In response, some members of the state legislature — led by Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins and joined by Santa Barbara State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson — have introduced legislation requiring full financial disclosure by lobbyists working the Coastal Commission on behalf of clients. If this bill, AB 2002, passes, we will soon know the names of agents humping the legs of all coastal commissioners, on whose behalf such leg-humpage is being transacted, and at what price. All this, of course, makes absolute sense. It may also be absolutely beside the point. Certainly, there was no shortage of sunshine and scrutiny (allegedly the most effective disinfectants of political corruption) at Morro Bay last week. The whole world actually was watching. That didn’t stop Lester — and the reputation of the Coastal Commission — from taking it in the neck. No one will be putting Humpty Dumpty back together again; he’s an omelet.
Still, it’s worth noting that relations between certain lobbyists and some commissioners have gone from cozy to incestuous a long time ago. Former commission alternate Susan McCabe is a case in point. By any reckoning, she’s smart, plugged-in, and effective. When she was caught boasting six years ago of “spoon feeding” commissioners, her business didn’t suffer. Just the opposite.
Little wonder the City of Santa Barbara paid McCabe $152,000 last year to arrange private ex parte meetings with eight of the 12 commissioners to explain why the city’s desalination plant need not comply with new environmental rules designed to protect larval marine life from being sucked and squished to death. It’s not for nothing McCabe also represented two separate billion-dollar desalination plants where the issues were identical.
By reputation, McCabe and commissar Mitchell are great pals. When asked about the bill to require full financial disclosure of lobbyist, the impenetrably opaque Mitchell gushed, “It’s clear we need more transparency.” She then added, “The public needs to know more about how decisions are made at the commission and who is trying to influence those decisions.”
Like I say, Mitchell is scary funny. But it’s not just the cynics weeping.