State Lands Com­mis­sion in the spot­light

The gov­er­nor’s race is draw­ing at­ten­tion to the pow­er­ful coastal panel.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - MICHAEL FIN­NEGAN michael.fin­negan@la­times.com Twit­ter: @finneganLAT

When John Chi­ang joined the State Lands Com­mis­sion, it quickly be­came a plat­form to show­case his en­vi­ron­men­tal record, start­ing with his 2007 vote to block con­struc­tion of a ship­ping ter­mi­nal for liq­ue­fied nat­u­ral gas in Ven­tura County.

The com­mis­sion has served the same pur­pose for Gavin New­som, who of­ten uses his seat on the panel to re­mind Cal­i­for­ni­ans that he op­poses off­shore oil drilling.

Now that both Chi­ang and New­som are run­ning for gov­er­nor, they are draw­ing rare at­ten­tion to the lit­tle­known but pow­er­ful State Lands Com­mis­sion.

It over­sees 4 mil­lion acres of land be­neath Cal­i­for­nia wa­ters: the state’s en­tire Pa­cific coast and its lakes, rivers and in­lets, along with the har­bors of San Diego, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oak­land and San Fran­cisco.

Ship­ping, fish­ing, oil and gas wells, wa­ter­front real es­tate devel­op­ment — it all falls un­der the State Lands Com­mis­sion.

By law, the com­mis­sion is com­posed of two elected of­fi­cials — the state con­troller and lieu­tenant gov­er­nor — and the state fi­nance di­rec­tor.

It over­sees the land be­neath the public wa­ter­ways that Cal­i­for­nia ac­quired when it be­came a state in 1850, in­clud­ing the ocean, up to three miles from shore.

The com­mis­sion man­ages these “sov­er­eign lands” as a public trust for the ben­e­fit of all Cal­i­for­ni­ans. Fish­ing, boat­ing, com­merce, re­cre­ation and eco­log­i­cal preser­va­tion are the main le­gal uses.

In places where land­fill has ex­tended the shoreline since 1850, such as San Fran­cisco’s Em­bar­cadero, the State Lands Com­mis­sion main­tains con­trol over the added land.

The com­mis­sion got its start in the 1930s, af­ter state Fi­nance De­part­ment of­fi­cials were accused of tak­ing bribes in re­turn for coastal oil leases.

That and other ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties led Cal­i­for­nia law­mak­ers to cre­ate the State Lands Com­mis­sion in 1938.

“The ne­ces­sity of an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion that makes its de­ci­sions in public was made ap­par­ent by the be­hav­ior of these in­di­vid­u­als,” the com­mis­sion says on its web­site.

Does the com­mis­sion make its de­ci­sions in public now?

Not al­ways. In a closed meet­ing in 2014, the com­mis­sion voted to sue San Fran­cisco to over­turn a city bal­lot mea­sure that re­stricted the height of wa­ter­front build­ings.

Once the suit was made public, the com­mis­sion­ers re­fused to say which of the three voted to au­tho­rize it, cit­ing “at­tor­ney-client priv­i­lege.”

“It’s con­fi­den­tial in­for­ma­tion, be­cause it was a vote taken in closed ses­sion,” said Jen­nifer Luc­ch­esi, the com­mis­sion’s ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer.

The com­mis­sion­ers also do not dis­close their pri­vate meet­ings with paid lob­by­ists who try to in­flu­ence their votes.

On May 8, for in­stance, New­som, the lieu­tenant gov­er­nor, and Betty Yee, Chi­ang’s suc­ces­sor as state con­troller, met separately with Bar­bara Boxer, who was rep­re­sent­ing Po­sei­don Wa­ter LLC, a wa­ter treat­ment com­pany.

Boxer, a for­mer U.S. se­na­tor, urged them to ap­prove Po­sei­don’s plan to build a seawa­ter de­sali­na­tion plant in Hunt­ing­ton Beach, a project that some en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists op­pose.

New­som and Yee, who are likely to vote on the project at the State Lands Com­mis­sion’s Aug. 17 meet­ing, dis­closed their con­ver­sa­tions with Boxer only in re­sponse to ques­tions from The Times.

Nei­ther has re­ported meet­ing pri­vately with op­po­nents of the plant.

How does the State Lands Com­mis­sion dif­fer from the Coastal Com­mis­sion?

Un­like the Coastal Com­mis­sion, the State Lands Com­mis­sion is in ef­fect a gi­ant land­lord, is­su­ing leases and con­tracts for use of its vast prop­er­ties, from kayak piers on Lake Ta­hoe to oil tanker ter­mi­nals in San Fran­cisco Bay.

Its leases now gen­er­ate about $100 mil­lion in state rev­enue each year, much of it from the leas­ing of oil and gas drilling rights. The State Lands Com­mis­sion em­ploys 202 peo­ple.

The two commissions do have over­lap­ping reg­u­la­tory pow­ers — both will vote on the Hunt­ing­ton Beach de­sali­na­tion plant — but the Coastal Com­mis­sion con­trols devel­op­ment on a much wider ex­panse of land, in some places stretch­ing as far as five miles in­land.

Are Chi­ang and New­som the first to see po­lit­i­cal op­por­tu­nity in the com­mis­sion?

Not at all. Many lieu­tenant gov­er­nors and state con­trollers as­pire to higher of­fice, and the State Lands Com­mis­sion can spawn good pub­lic­ity for the savvy ones.

Gray Davis, who served on the com­mis­sion for 12 years be­fore his 1998 elec­tion as gov­er­nor, was among the most ag­gres­sive.

“Our mes­sage to the oil com­pa­nies is very sim­ple: We aren’t go­ing away,” he de­clared in 1991, when four com­pa­nies agreed to pay $220 mil­lion to set­tle a suit that accused them of con­spir­ing to fix the price of oil pumped in Long Beach.

As Cal­i­for­nia has turned in­creas­ingly Demo­cratic in re­cent decades, the State Lands Com­mis­sion has be­come a prime ve­hi­cle for can­di­dates to take on Big Oil.

“Off­shore drilling in Cal­i­for­nia is a no-no, and to be in a po­si­tion of op­pos­ing it is a big deal,” said U.S. Rep. John Gara­mendi (DWal­nut Grove), a for­mer lieu­tenant gov­er­nor.

In 2010, Gara­mendi joined Chi­ang in block­ing then-Gov. Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger from al­low­ing new oil wells off the coast of Santa Bar­bara.

Most re­cently, New­som vowed to use his chair­man­ship of the com­mis­sion to block Pres­i­dent Trump from ex­pand­ing oil and gas drilling in fed­eral wa­ters be­yond the state’s three­mile bound­ary.

“Cal­i­for­nia’s door is closed to Pres­i­dent Trump’s Pa­cific oil and gas drilling,” New­som said.

So is it al­ways a source of good PR for the com­mis­sion­ers?

No. The com­mis­sion’s law­suit against San Fran­cisco has drawn fierce crit­i­cism of New­som from the Sierra Club and Art Ag­nos, one of his pre­de­ces­sors as the city’s mayor.

The suit seeks to nul­lify Propo­si­tion B, passed with the sup­port of 59% of San Fran­cisco vot­ers in 2014. It re­quires voter ap­proval for any wa­ter­front project that ex­ceeds the city’s height limit.

The State Lands Com­mis­sion says state law pro­hibits vot­ers from hav­ing a di­rect say on the use of public wa­ter­front, putting New­som in the awk­ward spot of try­ing to thwart the will of the peo­ple of the city he once gov­erned.

The law­suit is the first item up for dis­cus­sion in the closed por­tion of the com­mis­sion’s public meet­ing Thurs­day in Los Angeles. A fi­nal court rul­ing in the case could come as soon as next week.

Lawrence K. Ho Los Angeles Times

CAL­I­FOR­NIA’S EN­TIRE Pa­cific coast and its lakes, rivers and in­lets all fall un­der the State Lands Com­mis­sion, which over­sees ship­ping, fish­ing, oil and gas wells and more. Above, oil rigs in the Santa Bar­bara Chan­nel.

Jay L. Clendenin Los Angeles Times

GAVIN NEW­SOM of­ten uses his seat on the panel to re­in­force his op­po­si­tion to off­shore oil drilling.

Justin Sul­li­van Getty Images

JOHN CHI­ANG used his time on the com­mis­sion to show­case his en­vi­ron­men­tal record.

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