Lord Acton’s dictum that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” applies to kings, princes, governors and senators, and even to those who consider themselves above being corrupted because they serve a higher purpose. That includes the members of the California Coastal Commission.
We were reminded of the old adage recently when Sara Wan of Malibu, in a surprise vote by her fellow commissioners, was appointed chair of the Coastal Commission. She served as chair once before.
The word was that another member of the commission, Vice Chair Mary Shallenberger, a friend and close ally of Wan, was due to become the chair. Shallenberger previously had been the environmental deputy for former state Senate Leader John Burton and, as such, had handled several appointments to the Coastal Commission.
One of those appointments was Wan.
Wan was never an easy appointment for a politician. She has many fans in the environmental movement, but she has also made many enemies along the way.
Anyone who has ever sat through a commission meeting and watched Wan juggle the lineup of speakers so that causes she favors came up early and the opposition usually put off to the end of the meeting couldn’t help but come away with a feeling that they had been railroaded.
Most politicians try to hide their power, but not Wan. She loves power and loves people knowing that she has power. She delights in rubbing everyone’s nose in her power and wants you to know that she’s doing it. That’s just one of the reasons why Wan is detested by many, especially in Malibu.
I don’t yet know the details of how she maneuvered the chairmanship again, but she obviously had to have double-crossed her friend and ally Shallenberger.
I heard was that Shallenberger was furious. There is nothing worse than being betrayed by a friend. But this time Wan may have overplayed her hand, because she also has clearly alienated Shallenberger’s former boss, Burton.
The mercurial, profane and canny Burton is a former everything — Assemblyman, state Senator, congressman, and leader of the state Senate. Currently he’s the chair of the California Democratic Party – a powerful position in a blue state where all the statewide elected are Democrats.
Although he’s officially retired, he has many friends and remains politically active. He is also one of the blunter human beings on the planet. In fact, he’s famous, or rather infamous, for his artistic profanity, particularly his variations on the use of the f— word.
The other day he sent Wan a letter expressing his dismay at her conduct in snatching the chair of the commission from Shallenberger. I could paraphrase what he said, but I couldn’t do him justice so we’re reprinting the entire letter. The Jan. 13 missive is short, to the point, particularly pithy and definitely in the John Burton idiom:
“I just recently heard the news from the Coastal Commission whereby you screwed Mary Shallenberger out of the Chair of the Commission in order to gain it yourself.
What makes me write this letter is that I know exactly how often Mary championed your membership on the Coastal Commission when it was under attack. When each time I reappointed you, I was under extreme pressure to appoint someone else. Mary constantly fought for you, citing your experience and integrity as a member of the commission.
“I’m sure you haven’t lost any of your experience, but in my mind and minds of others you have lost your integrity. You should clearly be ashamed of yourself.
“No need to respond to this because I have no need to hear any of your rationalizing bullshit on this issue.”
“(Signed) John Burton
The strangest part of all this is that Wan is up for reappointment this spring. The new leader of the senate, Darryl Steinberg of Sacramento, is the appointing authority. Wan, after 16 years on the commission, is apparently of the opinion that she is indestructible, and in her lust for power and control has thrown caution to the wind.
I suspect Wan may get caught up in a windstorm.