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Commentary

Power Beyond the People: Why California Lags in Leadership



Under serial governor Jerry Brown, California has enjoyed a mild economic resurgence and this year could overtake Brazil for the world’s seventh-largest economy. Even so, few now look to the Golden State for leadership, and this month California demonstrates why this is the case.

The California Coastal Commission is the most powerful land-use agency in the nation, and some of the 12 commissioners want to fire the boss, Charles Lester. This will come to a head in a February 10 public hearing in Morro Bay on the central coast.

The public can’t vote Lester out of his job, because the powerful Commission is an unelected body that trumps scores of duly elected city and county governments on land-use issues. Lester himself was the selection of former Coastal Commission boss Peter Douglas, and therein lies the back story.

A regulatory zealot of considerable ferocity, Douglas coauthored Proposition 20, the 1972 state ballot initiative that created a temporary 15-member commission aimed at preventing disasters like the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. Douglas also wrote the California Coastal Act of 1976, signed by governor Jerry Brown, which made the Commission permanent. The next year, Douglas became deputy director and in 1985 executive director, a post he held until 2011.

Ever the elitist, Douglas derided elected local governments as “parochial” and easily manipulated by the wealthy and powerful. In practice, his commission made coastal residency a practical impossibility for working Californians. Regulation drives development inland, where energy demands soar with the temperatures.

For coastal residents, the slightest alteration is a bureaucratic nightmare. The onus is on property owners to show why their project should proceed, not on the Commission to show why it should not. As the Sacramento Bee laments, even those sympathetic to the agency find it “obstructionist.”

Under Douglas the Commission also showcased Mafia-style corruption. Commissioner Mark Nathanson served five years in prison for bribery, and Douglas is on record that more of that was going on. It bothered Douglas that state courts sometimes had the temerity to rule against the Commission, and he campaigned incessantly for the power to levy fines directly.

This same Peter Douglas picked Charles Lester to head the Commission, more in the style of North Korea than any democratic process. The current beef against Lester is not exactly clear. Some see an attempted coup by pro-developer interests, but that is dubious. On Lester’s watch, the Commission has expanded into issues such as inland landfills, animal management and even surfing tournaments.

California’s Coastal Commission shows how temporary government programs tend to become permanent, as Milton Friedman noted. The Commission also demonstrates how government progressively becomes more intrusive, more expensive, and less responsive to the people.

That’s hardly an example for the nation, but governor Jerry Brown, a former presidential candidate, appears to have no second thoughts. Indeed, in 2014 Brown signed a budget bill that gave the Commission power to impose fines directly, bypassing the courts.

Voters need a shot at reversing the Coastal Commission’s legacy of autocracy, zealotry, and disregard for individual rights. Rolling back abusive, expansionist government would help restore the Golden State’s fortunes as national leader.


K. Lloyd Billingsley is Policy Fellow at the Independent Institute and author of the Independent Briefing, California Water: A Case Study of Bureaucracy Versus Tradable, Private Water Rights.






  • MyGovCost.org
  • FDAReview.org
  • OnPower.org
  • elindependent.org