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Davis Signs Coastal Commission Bill

The new law is designed to resolve a crisis that has threatened the panel's future.

February 21, 2003|Kenneth R. Weiss and Gregg Jones | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — Calling the California Coastal Commission the "guardian angel" of the state's coastline, Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation Thursday to resolve a legal challenge that threatened the future of the commission and its authority to regulate seaside development.

Davis said the new law, which will take effect in 90 days, should be enough to end a constitutional crisis that arose when a state appeals court ruled in December that the commission's makeup violates the state Constitution's separation-of-powers doctrine.

The state Supreme Court is considering whether to review the lower court's ruling that legislators' ability to appoint and dismiss a majority of the 12 commissioners is an impermissible intrusion by the legislative branch on the executive.

"The court of appeals indicated that their chief complaint had to do with the ability of the Legislature to remove their appointees at will," Davis said immediately after signing the bill. "We believe today's fix is appropriate and all that is necessary to safeguard the legality of the statutes that underlie the California Coastal Commission."

Under the new law, the four commissioners appointed by the Senate Rules Commission and the four appointed by the Assembly speaker will serve fixed terms of four years. The governor's four appointees to the commission will continue to serve at his pleasure, meaning they can be dismissed at any time.

Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), who introduced the bill, crafted by state lawyers, said the new law "should take care of any concerns about potential undue influence by the legislative branch. It's crucial to allow this commission to operate."

The governor, who called a special session to correct the constitutional flaw, signed the bill before a group of more than two dozen legislators and environmental leaders.

Like previous governors, Davis has sometimes disagreed with rulings of the commission, which is part of the administration but operates outside the governor's control.

But Thursday, he joined other speakers in praising the commission for protecting the coast against ill-considered development and safeguarding the public's access to the shoreline.

"I've long believed that the coast belongs to everyone, not just to those who are fortunate enough to live there," Davis said. "If we did not have the California Coastal Commission, I predict our coastline would look an awful lot like that in Miami Beach," he said, referring to the oceanfront strip of high-rise hotels and condos.

As for the court case, Davis said, "We'll have to wait and see what the Supreme Court says, but I am confident that they will also look positively on the action we're taking here today."

The commission owes its origin to a 1972 voter initiative. In setting it up, state leaders subsequently split panel appointments three ways. The idea was to shield the agency from the influence of any one political leader as the commissioners decide whether to approve building permits sought by property owners with ties to Sacramento.

"Do we always agree with everything [the commissioners] do?" Davis asked rhetorically. "No. But they've done a wonderful job. All you have to do is drive up and down the coast and see what a wonderful job they've done over the past 30 years."

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