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Trust issues 

California coastal commissioners are too cozy with lobbyist Susan McCabe--a developer's dream come true

Most stakeholders believe that the real reason for terminating Dr. Charles Lester from the top post of the California Coastal Commission was the pressure put on the commissioners by developers. To appease the developers, commissioners needed to have control over the staff. Lester has unapologetically stated that it was his duty to keep commissioners at an arm’s length from the process in order to maintain staff’s independence.

Susan McCabe’s name appears often in the discussion. McCabe owns McCabe & Company. She has been called the “state’s most powerful hired gun [lobbyist] on coastal projects.” McCabe’s website listed 220 “California Coastal Commission Permit Clients.” The website stated, “These clients benefit from … firm’s expertise in favorably resolving a broad spectrum of issues including obtaining approvals for coastal development permits.”

Below is some information about the commissioners who ousted Lester.

Wendy Mitchell: Mitchell has been widely identified as the primary architect of the move to oust Lester. The city of Santa Barbara hired her as a lobbyist for its desalination project. The city had contracted with Carollo Engineers, a Mitchell client, to make the desalination plant operational. Mitchell voted in favor of the Santa Barbara project in February 2015. She was asked shouldn’t she have recused herself due to conflict of interest since her client Carollo was involved in the project? Mitchell claimed she was not aware of Carollo’s involvement when she voted but ended the relationship with Carollo as soon as she became aware of it on March 1. When pressed for the year, she grudgingly replied 2016. In sum, from the time she voted favorably on the Santa Barbara project (February 2015), it took Mitchell one year (March 1, 2016) to find out about Carollo’s involvement in the project.

McCabe refers to Mitchell as “my commissioner.” Mitchell always votes in favor of the projects represented by McCabe.

In a Sacramento Bee op-ed in February, Mitchell stated, “We must work to preserve coastal resources in the face of climate change and sea-level rise, improve public access and awareness about our beaches, and ensure the coast is open to all. This work requires strong environmental leadership, and that is what I will look for in a new executive director.” Lester was already doing all of it. He produced the Sea Level Policy Guidance describing the policy changes to address the effects of climate change. “All people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or level of income should be able to enjoy the benefits of our environmental protection programs,” stated Lester in the Sea Level Policy Guidance. 

Mark Vargas: Regarding Vargas’ role in Lester’s firing, Andrew Christie of the Sierra Club commented, “ … one of the architects of the worst damage done to the Coastal Commission’s reputation in its four decades of existence, while he was in the midst doing the damage.”

In the commission’s March 2016 meeting, Vargas started to speak in Spanish. During a break, several attendees asked him if it would be possible to obtain an English translation of his remarks. Vargas started yelling at them. On the last hearing day, a woman addressed the commissioners, “Excuse me in advance and please block your ears, but I am going to repeat Commissioner Vargas’s words verbatim. His exact quote: ‘F*** off. I’m tired of listening to your f***ing bull****. Get the f*** out of here.’ Is this the appropriate temperament and maturity for a commissioner?” she asked.

Erik Howell: Despite strong objections, for good reasons, from the neighborhood, the Silver Shoals housing project in Shell Beach was approved by the City Council in September 2014. The neighborhood filed an appeal to the Coastal Commission. When the project came before the commission in January 2015, Howell convinced other commissioners that a staff review was needed because the project was inconsistent with the city’s Local Coastal Plan. Staff review resulted in recommendations for additional parking, building height limits, and a wider road. McCabe was the lobbyist for the developer. When the post-review project came before the commission in November 2015, it was approved 6-5; Howell voted to approve the project. 

Surprisingly, the approved project did not incorporate Coastal Commission staff’s recommendations regarding a wider road, 16 additional parking spaces (instead of 10), and stricter building height limits. Howell publicly apologized to the developer and commissioners for urging, in January 2015, for the staff review. 

A lawsuit was filed challenging the development permit in January 2016.

It was discovered later that in September 2015 Howell received a $1,000 political contribution from Antoinette DeVargas, operations manager of McCabe & Company; DeVargas is McCabe’s life- partner and they have been together for more than 19 years. A group of Pismo Beach residents has filed a complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission alleging that Howell reversed his position on Silver Shoals project after receiving McCabe’s  $1,000 campaign contribution. According to the complaint, Howell violated Government Code Section 84308 (dealing with conflict of interest) five times by voting on the projects represented by McCabe within a year after receiving the contribution, and also failing to disclose it. 

On the eve of the vote on Silver Shoals, several Shell Beach residents saw Howell having dinner and drinks with McCabe, the developer, project architect, and Pismo Beach city manager.

Steve Kinsey, board chair: Officially the vote was 7-5 for firing Lester, but in reality it was 8-4. “Steve Kinsey, who had made it clear in remarks to the press and the hearing that he wanted to fire Lester, voted ‘no’—the prerogative of the chair who always votes last, if he knows there are enough votes for an unpopular measure to pass and he wants to record a ‘safe’ vote and duck responsibility,” wrote Christie of the Sierra Club.

In a New York Times interview, Kinsey said he was not moved by the turnout of people at the Morro Bay hearing. “Anytime you want to pack a house in California, you threaten development on the coast, that is magnified 100-fold, and we saw it yesterday,” he opined.

In January, Kinsey and Commissioner Dayna Bochco had a 40-minute meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown’s top advisor Nancy McFadden. They asked McFadden if Brown would attempt to influence commissioners before their votes on Feb. 10. McFadden assured them that the governor had no plans to do so.

Martha McClure: McClure also accepted a political contribution from McCabe. She found it perfectly normal that the donor, living about 750 miles away, would send a contribution for her Del Norte County supervisor campaign.

Roberto Uranga: Commissioner Uranga complained that the commissioners did not receive necessary information to make informed decisions. He spoke of how difficult it is to select the next executive director without basic information such as a budget. In fact, the budget information has been available on the commission’s website since early January.

Gregory Cox: It is untenable that Cox missed the February meeting and such an important vote. Instead, he sent an alternate as if the alternate was knowledgeable enough about the issues to be able to vote on firing the executive director. The alternate voted to fire Lester.

These people terminated Dr. Charles Lester. After gaining some insights into their character, could one trust them to act justly? You decide.

Here’s a predicament: Who in his/her right mind would accept this job requiring a high level of caliber, expertise, experience, and tremendous responsibility, for a piddling annual salary of less than $120,000, which Lester received, especially knowing the ignoble manner in which commissioners treated Lester?

Zaf Iqbal contributes a commentary to the New Times the first week of every month. He is past associate dean and professor emeritus of accounting at Cal Poly’s Orfalea College of Business. Zaf volunteers with several nonprofit organizations, including Wilshire Hospice, Good Neighbor Program, and Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). He is Partner for the Future at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and past president of the San Luis Obispo Democratic Club. Send comments to

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