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Greed Runs Out of Control

September 09, 1987

If some seats on the California Coastal Commission are not actually for sale, they certainly would appear to be for rent. This is the message that comes through from a report Monday by Times writers Robert W. Stewart and Ronald B. Taylor on political influence and the commission.

Clearly the work of the commission has been tainted by the effect of election-campaign fund-raising on the 12-member agency's decision-making process. The commission should be insulated immediately from potential conflicts of interest, through strong regulations either adopted by the commission itself or imposed by the Legislature. The commission also needs strict rules against private contacts between commissioners and those who have matters before the commission for decisions. The public's business must be conducted in public.

The political fever that afflicts the commission is only a symptom, however, of a deeper infection that threatens the core of the entire body politic in Sacramento: the corrupting influence of big money. In these days of million-dollar legislative contests and multimillion-dollar races even for secondary statewide offices, the greed for political campaign funds exceeds the bounds of reason. Fund-raising consumes elected officials from Election Day to Election Day.

That the process has spilled over into the state regulatory arena is evidence that the system is out of control. If the Legislature will not get serious about campaign reform, the abuses of big money will have to be corrected by popular initiative.

In Monday's article, Stewart and Taylor documented the big-league political fund-raising activities of commission appointees of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and the Senate Rules Committee, dominated by Senate President pro tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), in behalf of Roberti, Brown and others. Fund-raisers do get appointed to government jobs. That is a fact of political life. But once chosen to guard the public's interest on a regulatory body like the Coastal Commission, the fund-raising should stop.

It is not enough to declare that commission members should decline to vote on matters affecting persons or businesses that gave them money. The fact that a prominent political fund-raiser sits on the commission at the will of the Assembly Speaker or the Senate president pro tem--subject to instant dismissal, as has occurred--is sufficient to distort the regulatory process. Developers told Stewart and Taylor that they simply cannot afford not to give, out of fear that their projects might be doomed.

While the fund-raising examples dealt with legislative appointees, the same potential for abuse exists for gubernatorial selections. Gov. George Deukmejian has been hostile to the idea of a strong state commission, and his appointees consistently have supported that position.

Protection of the California coastline is nothing less than a sacred public trust held in behalf of 27 million Californians. The people entrusted to make such decisions should be kept as far as possible from the Sacramento money tree.

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