Are Coastal Cops Coming Soon?

JAN. 27, 2010

It was most interesting to read that Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, is calling for regulatory reform. “I always think that good policy makes for good politics,” he says in the Jan. 21 Sacramento Bee. “The primary purpose is to make it clear to the people of California that we get it, and that we aim to do things differently.”

What will be even more interesting is how Steinberg – and the rest of the Democrats who control both houses of the state Legislature – will react to a recent but largely ignored proposal to expand the regulatory powers of the California Coastal Commission, which since 1972 has overseen development along the state’s 1,100-mile shoreline. On Jan. 19, the state Legislative Analysts Office (LAO) re-released an old recommendation that, given Steinberg’s apparent willingness to reign in business-constricting regulations, is a step in the wrong direction.

“We recommend that the Legislature grant the California Coastal Commission the authority to levy administrative civil penalties in order to reduce the costs of enforcing compliance with the commission’s regulations and to stabilize funding for related activities,” states this LAO summary. “We further recommend that a special fund be created within the commission for receipt of penalty revenues.”

There’s a chilling implication here, but first a little background. Any city or county or local government that wants to develop its coastline has to develop a Local Coastal Plan (LCP). This plan must pass muster with the Coastal Commission, which has 15 members (three of which are non-voting) and is tasked with making sure that any coastal development protects existing habitats, public access, shoreline views, farmland, fishing and any archaeological sites. Given that local cities and counties are already mandated to do much of that, the Coastal Commission is an easy target for those who want to do away with wasteful state bureaucracies.

According to the LAO (Coastal Commission legislative liaison and spokesperson Sarah Christie didn’t return two phone calls asking for comment), the only way the commission – which draws its $17.5 million budget from the General Fund – can currently levy fines and penalties against those cities and counties and such whose Local Coastal Plans are found out of compliance with the California Coastal Act is by filing a case in superior court. And this, according to the LAO, is a bad thing.

“This process is cumbersome and results in few fines and penalties issued by the commission due to the high cost of pursuing enforcement through the courts,” the LAO reported in its 2008-09 Budget Bill Analysis. “This, in turn, is reflected in the commission’s budget where enforcement fines and penalty revenues remain stable at $150,000, with no change from the current year. By contrast, based on our review of other state and local regulatory agencies in the resources area, whose which administratively assess fines/penalties tend to have this as a growing source of support for their enforcement activities.”

In other words, administering fines is first and foremost a matter of raising revenue. Never mind the issue of whether there are gross injustices taking place because the commission can’t prosecute localities for Coastal Act violations – or even whether the state should be doing so – granting the Coastal Commission its own police force could bring in a ton of money! Hey, if local police departments can go mercenary and hand out their own speeding tickets because they’re a great source of revenue, why can’t the Coastal Commission?

Then-Assemblyman Ira Ruskin, D-Redwood City, attempted to do exactly this two years ago. His AB226, which he introduced on Feb. 4, 2009, stated that “a person who violates the [California Coastal] act is subject to an administrative civil penalty that may be imposed by the California Coastal Commission by a majority vote of the commissioners, upon consideration of various factors, in a public hearing in an amount no less than $5,000 and no more than $50,000 for each violation.”

If the violator failed to pay the fine, the bill further allowed the commission to “file a lien on the property of the violator in the amount of the penalty.” All fines received would go straight into a new, special fund strictly for the commission rather than the General Fund. Ruskin’s bill survived five amendments, until Aug. 20, 2010 when it was completely rewritten into a bill dealing with county employee’s retirement.

Ruskin was termed out of the Assembly in 2010, and there are currently no pending bills that pick up where his AB226 left off. Steinberg’s call for regulatory reform notwithstanding, the current state budget crisis will likely provide more than enough reason to keep this idea alive.

-Anthony Pignataro

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