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Coastal Panel to Consider Firing Top Director

July 02, 1996|JEFFREY L. RABIN and DEBORAH SCHOCH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Less than a month after taking control, the new Republican majority on the California Coastal Commission on Monday called an unusual special meeting next week to consider firing the agency's longtime executive director and beginning a search for a successor if necessary.

Acting commission Chairman Louis Calcagno ordered the issuance of a notice Monday calling the special July 12 meeting in Huntington Beach to consider the continued employment of Peter Douglas as the commission's executive director.

Douglas, who coauthored the 1972 act that created the agency, has at times clashed with both Republicans and Democrats on the commission over his opposition to some major coastal developments.

Calcagno, an appointee of Gov. Pete Wilson, could not be reached for comment, but Wilson's spokesman said the governor considers it proper and appropriate to "review the scope, nature and operation of the commission," including the executive director's performance.

Wilson spokesman Sean Walsh said the decision on whether to fire Douglas is up to the 12-member commission. Douglas has been with the commission since the administration of Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., Walsh noted. "It is healthy for any government bureaucracy to take a look at itself," Walsh said.

The move to consider firing Douglas comes at a time when the commission charged with protecting California's scenic 1,100-mile coastline from overdevelopment is dominated by eight Republican appointees for the first time in its history, as a result of the GOP takeover of the state Assembly.

Republican pollster Arnold Steinberg, appointed to the panel by Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), said Monday that he wants to reform the commission. "It is a reasonable question to ask whether a new executive director would be better able to do that," Steinberg said, adding that he does not know how he will vote on the future of Douglas.

"I have only attended one meeting," Steinberg said. "I'm going to be looking for a certain amount of guidance [about how to vote] from others who have more experience on the commission."

Commissioner Patricia Randa, another recent Pringle appointee, said word of the special meeting came as a surprise.

Before they were sworn in as commissioners, Steinberg and Randa had a long history of battling with the commission over development of homes in the Santa Monica Mountains.

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Douglas, chief of the powerful agency for 11 years and coauthor of California's landmark 1972 coastal protection initiative, has clashed with powerful interests on major coastal development projects during his tenure.

In two recent cases Douglas has been at odds with key Wilson administration officials on Southern California coastal projects. They involve 3,300 homes to be built in and around the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Huntington Beach and efforts by Southern California Edison to roll back requirements that the utility undertake an expensive program to offset the impact of the San Onofre nuclear power plant on the marine environment off the northern San Diego County coast.

Douglas opposed development of 900 of the homes in the Bolsa Chica wetlands, saying it was inconsistent with the state's coastal protection law. However, the commission ultimately rejected his advice and approved the entire project.

Douglas also refused to approve a plan that would allow Edison to eliminate major elements of a program to ease the effect of hot water discharges from the power plant. In that case, the commission deadlocked 6-6 last November.

A Democratic appointee, Coastal Commissioner Gary Giacomini, said "the fix is in" to fire Douglas. He said the tie vote on San Onofre marked the beginning of an all-out effort to get the executive director.

Ironically, since then, Douglas has received a favorable performance review and a significant pay raise.

Giacomini, a Marin County supervisor, said that after talking with Republican commission members he believes that Douglas is being targeted because the executive director approves staff reports that often take a hard line against development. Those documents are often cited in court cases in which environmentalists challenge development projects.

The apparent move against Douglas sparked outrage from environmental groups.

"This is nothing less than a full frontal attack on the California coastal protection program," said Anne Notthoff of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Peter has been the conscience of the coastal program for its entire life. He is recognized nationally as one of the originators of developing coastal programs nationwide. . . . This is a battle for the heart and soul of the California coast."

Douglas is already getting support from some lawmakers in Sacramento.

Assemblyman Bruce McPherson (R-Santa Cruz) called any move against Douglas "stupid" and said he has sent a letter supporting him to Wilson. Assemblyman Wally Knox (D-Los Angeles) said Douglas "has been the lifeblood of the Coastal Act. His loss would cripple the agency."

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