Dust-up at Coastal Commission after staff tries to cancel June meeting

The California Coastal Commission has been bailed out of its budget hole by the state Department of Finance, just days after commission staff angered the Schwarzenegger administration by canceling its June meeting.

The cancellation of the June meeting by commission executive director Peter Douglas angered a Schwarzenegger appointee to the commission, and the governor himself, and raised the issue of the coastal commission staff’s authority vis a vis the commissioners.
Commissioner Steve Blank, who was appointed to the commission by Schwarzenegger, met with Schwarzenegger days before the commission meeting on April 10. In that meeting, Blank said, the governor expressed his displeasure with Douglas’s cancellation of the meeting.

“With Arnold’s face about a foot from mine, these were the first words out of his mouth,” Blank said at the April 10 meeting. “I won’t repeat all the words because they involve commissioner Douglas and probably some acts that couldn’t be done physically.”
The new funding for the commission, which will amount to at least $325,000, secured by the Finance Department, allowed the commission to reinstate its June meeting. But the dust-up has raised some lasting questions about the commission’s budget and spending, and the authority of commission staff.

Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer said his department was able to juggle various pots of money around to help the commission address it’s budget shortfall.

“We were able to work cooperatively with the commission and other agencies to put together an interim funding package that will get them through their fiscal year,” said Palmer.  “Our short term focus was to take the necessary administrative steps to make sure the commission was able to fulfill its obligations, and Finance was able to help quarterback that solution.”

Even though the meeting was reinstated, Blank said Douglas overstepped his authority by trying to cancel the June meeting.

“I believe the executive director works for us, but having our director rather than our chairman announce this cancellation diminishes all of our authority,” he said.  “I want to make sure there’s not confusion in the future about whose meetings these are and who has the authority to cancel and schedule the meetings.”

Commission chairman Patrick Kruer defended Douglas, saying he discussed the cancellation of the June meeting with the executive director. “We did talk about this subject last month. All the commissioners were present. Director Douglas did call me and tell me that he was going to send this out, and with all due respect to him, he did check with me,” Kruer said.

Critics of Douglas say the cancellation of the meeting was a political ploy to get the administration to bail the commission out of its budget hole. Douglas denied that charge at the meeting.

“This was another way to save at least $25,000,” he said. “This is the first time in the history of the commission that we find ourselves in this position. “It was something that came as a last resort,” he added. “I felt we had no choice.”

But Blank said the $500,000 hole in the commission’s budget raised larger questions about how the agency’s $17 million budget was being spent. That was echoed by Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear.

“If the commission can’t manage their budget and their workload, that’s disappointing to us,” McLear said. But canceling the meeting was “irresponsible and it hurts the public.”
Blank said he felt as if the commission had been kept in the dark about the extent of the commission’s fiscal woes.

Commissioner Bill Burke, a member the commission’s budget subcommittee, said the commission’s budget process is more complicated than any agency he’s ever been involved with. “This budget is not like any other budget you’ve ever seen in your life,” he said. “This is really a screwed up thing.” Burke went on to praise Douglas and commission staffer Susan Hansch for their work in trying to save money.

“I think we’re very fortunate to have two people who really care about fiscal responsibility,” he said.

But he had some mixed praise for his commission colleague.  “What I love about commissioner Blank is what I hate about him,” Burke said. “He’s like a little puppy. He goes in there, and just argh argh argh,” Burke said, making a thrashing and clawing motion with his hands. “You can only do that for so long.”

Fellow commissioner and budget subcommittee member Mary Shallenberger was a bit more apologetic at the meeting. “We need to reexamine what we’ve brought to the commission,” she said to Blank. “I’m sorry if you don’t feel adequately briefed on the budget.”
Burke also came out in favor of more disclosure, though he remained unconvinced that it would make any difference. “I agree with [Blank]. Once a year we ought to present the budget to the commission as a whole and let them look at it. Then, when they turn green, we’ll take it back and we’ll go to work and we’ll find the money.”

Some on the commission found that point of view patronizing. “I believe the budget is a complex document, but it’s not beyond our comprehension,” said commissioner Dan Secord. “And I don’t think keeping information from the commission is a good idea.”

“It’s not a matter of withholding information,” Shallenberger said. “We thought we brought the essential information, and clearly in hindsight, it was not presented in a way that was heard, or it wasn’t enough information and we’ll correct that.”

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