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Ocean of Money 

Gray Davis’ role in the Coastal Commission shakeup

Wednesday, Dec 18 2002
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Governor Gray Davis and his staff played a major role in last week‘s removal of the environment-friendly chairman of the powerful California Coastal Commission, the Weekly has learned.

But once they succeeded in ousting longtime Malibu environmental activist Sara Wan, they could not get the votes needed to replace her with developer-friendly Commissioner David Potter, a Monterey County supervisor. Instead, when the dust settled a few days later, another pro-environment commissioner, Sonoma County Supervisor Mike Reilly, was elected chairman by a unanimous vote.

In press coverage last week, Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio downplayed Davis’ role and said the governor did not lobby for the ouster of Wan. But several sources tell the Weekly that high-ranking aides in the Governor‘s Office lobbied both for Wan’s removal and for the election of Potter, a general contractor who has worked for one of the biggest applicants before the commission, the Pebble Beach Co., whose board contains a key Davis backer.

And these aides -- chief of staff Lynn Schenk and Vincent Harris, deputy to departing Cabinet Secretary Susan Kennedy -- worked with Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson -- through Wesson‘s chief of staff, John Stevens, a former top Davis aide -- to gain the votes needed to oust Wan and to install Potter. (The governor, the Assembly speaker, and the Senate president pro tem, John Burton, each have four appointees on the commission.) Burton’s appointees supported Wan, herself a Burton appointee, and opposed Potter.

The Governor‘s Office had no comment on contacts with Wesson. Speaking through Davis spokeswoman Hillary McLean, Harris says he did not place any calls, but that he did receive calls. He denied lobbying in favor of any outcome. Also speaking through McLean, Schenk says she didn’t call any of the governor‘s appointees.

The commission shakeup created problems for Davis with environmentalists. ”The mainstream enviro community stayed with Gray strongly, despite grassroots misgivings,“ notes Sierra Club lobbyist V. John White, ”and this is his first opportunity to say thank you.“

Wan embarrassed the governor early in his administration when she refused to set aside a Coastal Commission resolution condemning a proposed Mitsubishi saltworks plant in Baja California’s Laguna San Ignacio, which is a gray-whale habitat. Former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo had asked Davis to rein in the Coastal Commission, and Davis had been anxious to demonstrate a new era of friendship with Mexico after the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 days of Pete Wilson. Wan and the commission refused to back down, and many local governments passed resolutions opposing the project, which Mitsubishi abandoned.

But Mexico and whales have not been a major controversy at the Coastal Commission -- which was authorized in 1972 by popular initiative, sponsored by then-L.A. Assemblyman Alan Sieroty, the Sierra Club, and the Planning and Conservation League -- to protect the coast from an onslaught of development. The commission was brought into being in 1976 by the administration of then-Governor Jerry Brown.

Megabucks projects have made the Coastal Commission a nexus for big-money politics. There have been repeated clashes between the commission on one side and land owners, developers and corporations on the other: over development in Malibu and public access to the coast; over the plans of giant telecom firms like Global Crossing to lay fiber-optic cables under the ocean to Asia; and over the massive Pebble Beach golf-course project, backed by investor and Pebble Beach Co. board member Clint Eastwood, a Davis golfing partner and fund-raiser and also a Davis appointee to the state Parks & Recreation Commission. Other major projects falling under Coastal Commission review include a plan for 140 homes and retail shops along Northern California‘s Half Moon Bay, a subdivision in San Clemente, the big residential and office development in Playa del Rey; and a proposal to place another 200-acre golf course on wetlands along the Santa Barbara coast. These are big-money issues, hence it is big-time politics, and it should surprise no one that multiple sources tell the Weekly that the Governor’s Office routinely contacts commissioners on behalf of development projects.

”Coastal protection is subverted by politics,“ charges Mark Massara, head of the Sierra Club‘s coastal-protection a arm. ”Sara Wan was the victim of a political beating.“

The Coastal Commission is described on its own Web site as ”an independent, quasi-judicial state agency.“ It was designed to replace local government control of coastal-planning issues, as local elected officials were frequently overwhelmed by the money power of big development interests. As California’s only statewide land-use planning body, the Coastal Commission was intended to be free from that sort of pressure.

”The ‘90s boom put tremendous pressure on the coast,“ says Natural Resources Defense Council California director Ann Notthoff. The freshly moneyed class, including entrepreneurs and executives from entertainment, finance and technology, flocked to the coast, erecting new palazzos, adding on to existing ones, and seeking new recreational complexes. And public access to the coast, guaranteed by the Coastal Act even over private-property interests, has been under great challenge. (The efforts of Hollywood mogul David Geffen to limit beach access near his house sparked a series of derisive ”Doonesbury“ cartoons.)

”There’s been a widespread perception that the coast is safe,“ says Commissioner Christine Desser, former executive director of Earth Day and a Davis appointee. ”But constant vigilance is required.“ She and fellow Davis appointee John Woolsey broke from the move against Wan and in favor of Potter, joining the four Burton appointees, while Davis appointees Cynthia McClain-Hill, an L.A. land-use lawyer, and Gregg Hart, a Santa Barbara city councilman, joined with the four Wesson appointees. Desser, Woolsey and the Burton appointees backed Wan until she determined she could not win a majority. Then they backed Reilly.

With the Davis appointees split, Wesson was in an exposed position with environmentalists. McClain-Hill and others then walked it back in. ”Potter delivered and sustained major blows“ in the fight, explains McClain-Hill. ”It was time to make peace.“

McClain-Hill, who represents giant Comcast Cable and Majestic Realty, insists that there was no issue in particular that prompted her to oppose Wan‘s chairmanship. Rather, it was her approach. ”Sara Wan was identified as an environmental activist,“ says McClain-Hill. ”The commission is supposed to be neutral. It should not be friendly to environmentalists or hostile to developers.“ McClain-Hill takes credit for starting the anti-Wan drumbeat in the last year.

So where does the Coastal Commission go, with feelings bruised from this public debacle? The big Pebble Beach project is coming up soon. And Desser’s term on the Coastal Commission is up in February. Davis has not yet said whether he will keep her on. If she is not reappointed, that will be an unwelcome signal to environmentalists about Davis and the coast.

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