EVEN BY HIS OWN ELECTRIC STANdards, state Senate leader John Burton delivered a lightning bolt in a recent letter to the Planning and Conservation League (PCL). Burton was upset with PCL, an environmental organization, for creating Proposition 51, which failed at the ballot box last week.

It wasn't so awful that Burton called the organization “shameful” or likened it to a “whore.” This is politics, after all; hyperbole and name calling are de rigueur.

No, Burton's most chilling comment, in the September 23 letter to the PCL board, was his last: “You should not be surprised,” he wrote, “that you are not welcome in my office and PCL's position on legislation is of no interest to me.” That remark was the unkindest cut possible for PCL, a pre-eminent lobbying organization whose member affiliates include many of California's most respected environmental groups. For PCL to lose access to the state's most powerful legislator, usually an ally of environmentalists, was, to borrow a metaphor from Harry Potter, the soul-stealing kiss of the dementor.

PCL apparently got the message; longtime executive director Gerald Meral, 58, announced just before Election Day that he would retire from his leadership position and instead work part time to build a permanent endowment for the organization.

Meral and his board of directors deny any link to the outcry over Prop. 51 or its Election Day drubbing: 58.7 percent of voters opposed it. He had planned to step down and move to the Marin coast, they noted, when Meral's wife retired — and that time had come. Maybe so, but the timing caught many associates by surprise, and, at the very least, it came across as appeasement both to critics and erstwhile allies.

Prop. 51 would have permanently diverted money from the state's General Fund — about $1 billion a year to start with — into specific transportation, preservation and museum projects. Because the measure raised no new revenue, it would have exacerbated the state's current budget crisis, tied the hands of legislators in perpetuity and resulted in cuts to other programs that the state budget funds, like health care, education and fire protection.

But that's not all. To get Prop. 51 on the ballot and to pay for a campaign, PCL studded the measure with pet projects designed to elicit campaign funds. The “pay-to-play” projects included a golf-cart path, road improvements to help developers, and a rail line to an Indian casino. These costly and questionable, but relatively short-duration projects overshadowed the initiative's permanent, more progressive elements, such as promoting mass transit. Many environmental groups overlooked the unseemly handouts and endorsed Prop. 51 because the initiative also contained what they wanted.

Still, Prop. 51 made the Planning and Conservation League seem like a front for housing-tract developers or highway or rail builders. It's not. “There is not a single environmental law or state regulation that PCL has not had a voice in,” said Rachel Dinno, a government-relations director of the Trust for Public Land. “And for over three decades now, PCL has been in the forefront of creating conservation funds.” Meral, she added, deserves much of the credit for leading PCL over the past 20 years: “Jerry has a brilliant mind. He has been able to find solutions to complex issues in which he has brought together parties that are often at war with each other to find these common interests.”

Meral did not return calls from the Weekly, but noted in an Internet posting that the conservation group successfully backed three water bonds, two rail bonds, the creation of a habitat-conservation fund and the outlawing of mountain-lion trophy hunting. His personal credentials are sterling. A trained zoologist, Meral, from 1975 to 1983, was deputy director of the California Department of Water Resources. Earlier, he'd served as staff scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund.

But critics say that, over the years, he'd become entranced with the gamesmanship of politics, especially the initiative process. Indeed, instead of warring with developers, Meral frequently passed the collection plate. The Playa Capital Corp., which is building homes on much of the Ballona Wetlands in West L.A., donated $830,000 to PCL. Playa Capital, in turn, stood to receive some $55 million in taxpayer funds from Prop. 51. The money would have gone toward the purchase of about 200 acres that Playa Capital has agreed, tentatively, to set aside as public land.

Such arrangements inevitably pulled PCL away from the hardcore left of the environmental movement, into an arena where there are deals to be made, ones that purportedly benefit all participants. But the distinction can get blurry between a reasonable accommodation and a sellout. PCL's critics thought it often gave too much. And its membership is so diverse that it would be difficult for PCL to adopt certain cutting-edge positions that could offend members of its coalition. Some environmentalists faulted PCL lobbyists as too willing to sacrifice key endangered-species protections in exchange for nailing down this year's compromise legislation governing the transfer of water from one portion of the state to another. Early drafts of the bill would have gutted existing statutes that fully protected 37 species, including the brown pelican. To preserve the bulk of these protections, environmentalists told the Weekly, they had to work around the PCL.

PCL board president Sage Sweetwood responded that “most of the folks truly committed to endangered-species protection” felt the final version of the new law was “far and away better.”

FOR YEARS, CRITICS FINGERED PCL for its pay-to-play methods. State Senator Quentin Kopp authored 1991 legislation banning the practice, which he likened to legalized bribery. The courts struck down the law on grounds that it restricted political speech. Prop. 51 raised the ire of lawmakers anew, because it directly and massively attacked their ability to make budget decisions. They held hearings, solicited testimony and expressed their outrage to reporters and editorial boards — as did consumer and public-policy groups. The bad publicity sank Prop. 51 and tarred PCL.

But Prop. 51 also discomfited environmentalists who endorsed the proposition, especially after they got around to reading the novella-length text. PCL board member Jan Chatten-Brown learned, to her consternation, that Prop. 51 would have funded $21 million in road improvements benefiting the Newhall Land and Farming Co., which hopes to build 21,000 homes along the Santa Clara River. (Newhall donated $150,000 to Prop. 51.)

Chatten-Brown has opposed Newhall Ranch in her work as an environmental attorney. “I personally was disappointed that I didn't pick up on it, and that there wasn't a process to more carefully vet some of the projects included in Proposition 51,” she said. “The president of the [PCL] board has committed to assuring in the future that there's a real vetting process and to check with the activists.”

But Chatten-Brown added it would be unfair to scapegoat Meral, given what environmentalists are up against. As an example, she cited this month's defeat of Measure 27, an Oregon initiative that sought to label genetically modified food. Early polling suggested overwhelming public support, until Monsanto and other corporations poured in millions of campaign dollars. Environmentalists, she said, have needed every bit of Meral's political wiles, and she, for one, never doubted that Meral was on her side.

LA Weekly