Court overturns judgement against California Coastal Commissioners

November 29, 2020

Pismo Beach Councilman Erik Howell


A California appeals court on Monday overturned a state court ruling that found five California Coastal Commission board members, including Pismo Beach Councilman Eric Howell, had violated conflict of interest regulations, leading to $45,000 in civil penalties and an award of $929,046 in attorney fees. As a result of the ruling, the commissioners can now file a motion seeking attorney fees and court costs from the plaintiff.

The state’s Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled that San Diego County Superior Court Judge Timothy B. Taylor erred in his determination that the plaintiff in the case, a nonprofit named Spotlight on Coastal Corruption, which was a group of attorneys founded, had public interest standing. And as such, Spotlight was not entitled to a court order against a government agency.

“This case has always been all about money—civil fines and attorneys’ fees,” the appellate court ruling states. “For example, in the trial court Spotlight assured the court that it is not seeking to overturn or vacate any commission decision. At trial, Spotlight’s attorney argued, ‘A hefty financial penalty is the only thing that will suffice.’ ”

In 2016, Spotlight filed a lawsuit alleging five 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.

In scathing press communications, Spotlight painted the volunteer commissioners as corrupt.

“At trial, Spotlight asserted that the commissioners had committed ‘hundreds and hundreds of known violations,’ which Spotlight characterized as ‘clear-cut crimes’ that ‘shattered the public’s confidence’ and ‘ruined the public’s trust’ in the commission’s fairness,” according to the appellate court ruling.

Spotlight alleged 48 violations by Howell, 321 by Steve Kinsey, 168 by Martha McClure, 240 by Wendy Mitchell, and 249 by Mark Vargas, including violations of the Coastal Act.

But trial court Judge Taylor rejected some of Spotlight’s assertions, noting that while the commissioners’ behaviors were lax, no environmental rights were impinged. Even though the trial court determined that most of Spotlight’s allegations were unfounded, Judge Taylor ruled against the five coastal commissioners partially based on their own admissions.

For example, Howell admitted that one of his disclosure forms was undated, and another was unsigned. Out of the 165 violations that Spotlight asserted against Howell at trial, the Judge Taylor determined he committed 13, and imposed a $3,500 fine.

The appellate court also found that Judge Taylor erred when he determined that on top of the $7,500 fine that could be imposed to commissioners for failing to timely or fully file disclosure forms, the commissioners faced an additional $30,000 fine generally lodged against people for developing without a permit.

“The judgment is reversed with directions to enter judgment for defendants and to conduct further proceedings consistent with this opinion, including but not necessarily limited to a motion by defendants for prevailing party attorneys’ fees and costs,” according to the appellate court ruling that was made shortly after Howell lost his seat on the Pismo Beach Seat Council along with his position on the California Coastal Commission.

During the last election, Howell’s opponents sent mailers slamming the commissioner and councilman for losing the conflict of interest case. Howell lost his seat to Councilwoman Marcia Guthrie by 41 votes.

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$929,046 in attorney fees!?! And $45,000 in civil penalties!?!

Something’s wrong with this. How could lawyer’s fees be nearly $1 million and the actual civil penalties be under $50,000?

“This case has always been all about money—civil fines and attorneys’ fees,” the appellate court ruling states,” indeed.

I do not understand how an agency being charged for a conflict of interest is being judged by a court that is funded by the same funding source (California Taxpayers) is not a conflict of interest too. Wouldn’t it be less self serving to have the merits of conflict of interest in this case be moved to a Federal Court?

I believe the Constitution demands that each level of our justice system be completely unbiased. Once we lose confidence in that impartiality we become no better than the Banana Republics we have criticized for so many years.

Dismissing effective litigation by the often-misused Chimera of “lack of standing” is wrong in this case; the Commissioners misbehaved.

Jorge, yes a change of venue might be better but perhaps only to an inland Superior Court not tainted by frequently hearing the Coastal Commission’s bizarre land grab techniques and cases.

A Federal District Court case or controversy might not work if there is none extant.

However, perhaps you are right and fed jurisdiction DOES exist since the Coastal Commission thinks it is God even three and more miles off shore (traditionally Federal jurisdiction.)