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State Senator Mimi Walters

AB 976: Coastal Commission Eroding Due Process

It’s somewhat ironic, really.  The California Coastal Commission (Commission) wants to upend the process for penalizing property owners it says are eroding our coastal resources by – wait for it – eroding due process rights for those same property owners.

For several years the Commission has sought to expand its enforcement authority greatly by allowing it to impose penalties and fines for violations of the Coastal Act instead of having to impose them through the independent judicial process.  This year, with Friday’s passage of Assembly Bill 976 (Atkins-D, San Diego), it has almost succeeded.

AB 976 inappropriately expands the Commission’s enforcement authority by allowing it to impose administrative civil penalties unilaterally instead of having them imposed through the court system, as is provided by current law.  Worse, it creates a “bounty-hunter” mentality for the imposition of fines and penalties by Commission staff.  While the fines will go into the Coastal Conservancy, and not to the Commission itself, that provision can be changed at any time by inserting language in any Budget trailer bill as a revenue-creating budget solution.

Republicans (and some Democrats) oppose this misguided bill not because we don’t care about the environment or protecting California’s incomparable coastline; we oppose it because we care about eroding Californians’ rights to due process and giving too much power to a non-elected commission and its staff members.  We oppose creating a built-in conflict of interest by allowing a commission to act not only as cop and prosecutor but as judge and jury.  We oppose creating more regulation that only adds to California’s anti-business, lawsuit-friendly reputation.  We oppose giving more power to a state-level body that usurps local decision-making authority.

The Commission is not a court and shouldn’t be allowed to function as one.  A home- or business-owner facing potentially significant fines and penalties should be provided due process through the judicial system – where witnesses must be qualified to testify and are sworn in, testimony is taken, witnesses are cross-examined, rebuttal is allowed, and no time restrictions are imposed, all before an impartial judge.  The Commission does not swear in witnesses or require they be qualified to testify, allows hearsay, does not provide for cross-examination or rebuttal, sets time limits for testimony for alleged violators but not for its staff, and provides no opportunity for expanded testimony on what are often complex technical matters.

Now, all that stands between Californians losing another chunk of their judicial rights to a non-elected, part-time board of political activists and appointees is Governor Brown, and we urge him to veto this dangerous bill.  We ask him to recall his own strong words, aired on his “We the People” radio show in 1995:  “When I say the U.S. Government is taking another step down the road to totalitarianism, I’m not just saying that for rhetorical effect.  There is a systematic movement to extinguish the liberties of the American people.”