Pismo Beach Councilman Erik Howell could face multiple fines of up to $30,000 each if a San Diego judge rules against him in a California Coastal Commission conflict of interest case. In all, millions of dollars of fines could be levied against Howell and other current and former coastal commissioners who are defendants in the case.
In 2016, a nonprofit named Spotlight on Coastal Corruption filed a lawsuit alleging several coastal commissioners illegally hid private meetings with developers and other lobbyists from the public. By law, coastal commissioners are required to disclose ex-parte communications within seven days.
Howell and Commissioner Mark Vargas, as well as former commissioners Steve Kinsey, Martha McClure and Wendy Mitchell, are defendants in the California Coastal Commission case, which is being heard in the San Diego Superior Court. The California Attorney General’s Office is representing the current and former commissioners, even though they were sued as individuals.
If fines are levied, it is likely the state will indemnify the defendants, who serve as unpaid Coastal Commission board members.
The state attorney generals’ office offered a $250,000 settlement that would have included money for fines and attorneys’ fees. Spotlight on Coastal Corruption turned down the settlement offer, which would have been paid with taxpayer money.
In defense of the commissioners, the state Attorney General’s Office has argued that substantial, rather than complete compliance, with private meeting disclosure rules is all that is required. State prosecutors said the violations that occurred amounted to little more than clerical errors.
Last week, Judge Timothy Taylor issued a tentative ruling sympathizing with the current and former commissioners. Taylor questioned in the ruling whether the Coastal Commission can carry out its mandate to protect the state’s coastline with a part-time, unpaid volunteer board that meets three days a month in various locations.
Nonetheless, the commissioners could still receive fines of up to $30,000 for each violation from 2013 to 2016, as well as additional penalties for more recent breaches. If the fines are assessed, the revenue raised would go to the commission’s Violation Remediation Account, which funds projects aimed at increasing public access to the California Coast.