The California coastline.
It can be…
|Ugly…||…but mostly beautiful.|
And many Californians – to one degree or another – consider themselves the watchdogs of our coastline.
But it’s the California Coastal Commission (CCC) that has the official role of watchdog, and whose mission statement declares it is “committed to protecting and enhancing California’s coast and ocean for present and future generations.”
Established in 1972, it’s this “independent, quasi-judicial state agency” that’s charged with considering development applications along some 1,100 miles of California coastline.
And it’s five commissioners of the CCC who violated their own rules, ended up in court and…
But first let’s set the stage.
Sometimes we screw up, and sometimes we’re caught. And when we are, sometimes a fine is imposed on us.
It might be something as small and simple as a fine for an overdue library book, or complicated and expensive, like a Driving Under the Influence penalty.
Some of us choose to fight the fine, and most who choose to fight – lose. In the normal course of events, we pay the fine.
The equation so far is,
Not so fast.
Not so – for those five commissioners of the California Coastal Commission.
Those five commissioners screwed up, and were sued in 2016 by San Diego lawyer Cory Briggs, representing the non-profit organization Spotlight on Coastal Corruption (SOCC). The suit alleged the commissioners failed to properly disclose scores of private meetings and discussions with developers and lobbyists who had matters before them.
The case came to trial, and in February 2018 Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez suggested that, “If the allegations against the commissioners are proved, each could face several millions of dollars in fines.”
How many millions? Here are the suggested fines, based on the SOCC court papers:
Steve Kinsey: $5,250,000
Mark Vargas: $5,625,000
Wendy Mitchell: $4,500,000
Erik Howell: $3,600,000
Martha McClure: $3,150,000
In spring 2018 a judge in California Superior Court found all five commissioners guilty.
Instead of that “several million dollars,” the commissioners were fined as follows:
Name/Current or Former Member
Steve Kinsey, former member
Mark Vargas, current member
Wendy Mitchell, former member
Erik Howell, current member
Martha McClure, former member
The judge also ruled that the lawyer, Cory Briggs, was entitled to $930,000 in attorney’s fees, plus there was another $30,000 in court costs to be paid for.
Grand total of fines and fees: $1 million+.
It’s important to note that attorney Briggs did not sue the California Coastal Commission; the accused commissioners were sued as individuals.
And according to Briggs, each defendant was “individually responsible for the full amount of attorney fees and costs. You can see the judge wrote for costs and attorneys’ fees, each of the defendants is ‘jointly and severally’ liable. It means collectively and individually you owe the money.”
Justice served. Right?
The commissioners were guilty, but were not in the “Do the crime, pay the fine” mode.
In September 2018 reporter Lopez revealed that a pretrial decision had been made by the CCC to indemnify the commissioners against liability for payment if they lost.
Do you know what “indemnify” means? I didn’t. Here it is:
Indemnify: To secure (someone) against legal liability for their actions.
So if the five commissioners found guilty didn’t have to pay…
According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, in a letter to lawmakers in early April, California’s Department of Finance advised that the Coastal Commission had requested an “Unanticipated Cost Funding Request,” and that the $1 million+ “come from the state’s General Fund.”
Let’s take this one costly step at a time:
The California Department of Finance displays its mission statement on its home page. That mission statement includes the words “responsible resource allocation”:
The California Department of Finance also has a “Finance Glossary of Accounting and Budgeting Terms.” That glossary includes the definition of “General Fund”:
There is no way, and I mean NO WAY, that paying the fines, court costs and lawyer fees for five guilty members of the CCC is “responsible resource allocation.”
And it sure isn’t providing funds for “education (K-12 and higher education), health and human services programs, and correctional programs.”
But did you note where the money in the general fund comes from? Look at the area underlined in the image above.
Uh-huh. We taxpayers are on the hook for that $1 million+.
“Absorbed by taxpayers,” as they say.
And it doesn’t stop there.
The five commissioners were represented by the state Attorney General who, even though his side lost, asked the court to order SOCC to pay the Attorney General $649,000 to cover its legal costs.
The judge rejected that request.
So who’s on the hook for that $649,000?
But wait…there’s more.
Attorney Briggs has filed a second lawsuit against the Coastal Commission, which is still pending. Our friends in the Finance Department have advised lawmakers that an additional $200,000 will be required to cover costs related to that lawsuit.
I didn’t go into detail about what the five commissioners were accused of, or what the judge decided each commissioner specifically did and didn’t do.
The bottom line is, remember that equation that always seems to work when it comes to you and me? When we screw up and are fined for it?
For those five California Coastal commissioners…
That equation now reads:
Which leaves me poorer, and…