Coast Panel's Work Demands Integrity

*Clear the way for an independent membership.

By Ellen Stern Harris

Efforts to save what remained of California's treasured coastline began in the glorious 1960s, when the public-interest movement was flourishing.

I was sitting on the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board and realized that every time we gave a permit for another outfall, there went another once-lovely beach. This was also not doing California's tourism industry any good at all.

It was the citizen-led cleanup of what were then industrial cesspools, the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors, that made us believe that any worthwhile environmental purpose could be achieved.

But it was the Great Wall against the sea -- development blocking the view of the beach all along the coast of Malibu -- that especially inspired my own efforts. A group of us drafted legislation that combined the accessibility of the regional water quality boards, the oversight of the state Water Resources Board and the virtues of the San Francisco Bay Conservation & Development Commission.

But we never could get our bills passed without their being watered down into meaninglessness.

That's how Proposition 20 came to be.

It was among the few successful initiatives in the last 30 years that did not use paid signature-gatherers. And in 1972 it won, thanks in no small part to people's passion for the coast -- and to the Federal Communications Commission's requirement then that broadcasters provide free equal time for responses in such issues.

Charlton Heston appeared, pro bono, on TV and in radio ads for the Save Our Coast campaign. It was as if he were handing down an 11th Commandment: "Thou shall vote for Proposition 20."

We drafted Proposition 20 so that appointments to the Coastal Commission would be divided among the governor and leaders of the Legislature. We thought that if we had a governor who did not believe in coastal protection, that might be countered by legislative appointees. Or vice versa.

Now an appeals court in Sacramento says another provision allowing the commissioners to serve at the "pleasure" of the appointers -- in other words, they can be arbitrarily removed -- violates California's Constitution. With this, I could not agree more. The decision is likely to be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

The Legislature soon may weigh in as well. And if the law is changed to allow set terms for commissioners, they won't be subject to removal for voting against a permit for somebody who has contributed to the appointing authority's campaign.

As it is now, a "wrong" vote has too often resulted in an appointing authority's imaginary vaudevillian hook, removing a commissioner immediately following the "miscast" vote.

Of course, the real issue is getting the appointing authorities to select commissioners who are motivated to protect, restore and enhance the coast. Our best hope of that is instituting something called "clean-money campaigning."

That's where a large number of signatures, each accompanied by a donation of $5, allows candidates to run for state offices without pandering to special interests. Partial public financing is provided to those who qualify.

Recently, most of Arizona's gubernatorial candidates ran on this basis. And a clean-money campaigner won.

Though coastal commissioners are required to disclose their holdings, attorneys appointed to the commission have claimed attorney-client privilege and refused to reveal who their clients are. It's time for them to either make full disclosure, with the permission of their clients, or decline to serve on the commission.

Concern about the public trust in the shoreline goes back to the Roman Emperor Justinian in 530. He declared that "by the laws of nature these things are common to all mankind: the air, running water, the sea and consequently the shores of the sea."

The California Supreme Court has reaffirmed that ancient doctrine, stating that lands between the lines of the mean high tide and mean low tide are held in trust for the people. That's usually the wet part of the sandy shore.

It's getting there, without a rowboat, that has so limited our access to the beach.

One of the key provisions of Proposition 20 and the current coastal act is the focus on obtaining public access paths to the beaches.

That -- rather than a Great Wall of Mansions -- is what the Coastal Commission is supposed to protect. And whether it takes the state Supreme Court or the Legislature or a clean-money campaigning initiative, that is what we need to fight for.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

   Become a Clean Money Member