‘It’s a mess’: Attempt at illegal Coastal Commission nominations shows decades of state law violations by Santa Cruz County

West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In what has been called an “significant betrayal of the public trust,” Santa Cruz County has been convening private meetings of mayors, accompanied by city and county executives, to vote on appointments to regional public agencies. The group’s Jan. 27 nomination of three officials to serve on the highly influential California Coastal Commission has been invalidated and will now be done in public Tuesday.

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Santa Cruz County has been breaking state law for more than 20 years by convening private gatherings of mayors, city managers and the chair of the county board of supervisors — often held in restaurants — to vote on appointments to regional boards and nominations to the highly influential California Coastal Commission, according to documents obtained by Lookout and an admission of wrongdoing by the county.

The most recent private meeting happened Jan. 27, when members of the county’s City Selection Committee met over videoconference to vote on a list of nominations to fill a vacancy on the California Coastal Commission, the state agency that wields vast authority over planning and land use across California’s coastal zone.

An arm of local government mandated by state law in counties with two or more incorporated cities, the City Selection Committee is required to conduct its business in public.

However, without any public vetting, the committee of mayors voted at the Jan. 27 meeting to nominate Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley, Capitola City Councilmember Yvette Brooks and board of supervisors chair Zach Friend as Santa Cruz County’s nominations for the Coastal Commission.

After Lookout requested details of the nominations meeting and asked why no information was publicly available, county spokesperson Jason Hoppin called the failure to publicize the Jan. 27 meeting, and all prior meetings, “an error.” Those nominations to the Coastal Commission have since been invalidated on the advice of the county’s legal counsel.

“For 30 years [the committee] met informally, often over lunch,” Hoppin said via email Feb. 14. “Recently, a community member asked about the meeting being noticed. We asked county counsel, who advised [us] to go ahead and notice the meetings. They are doing that, and so have deemed any prior vote by the mayors invalid.”

Groundbreaking at Willowbrook County Park
Santa Cruz County Supervisors Chair Zach Friend was among the three nominations to the Coastal Commission.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The City Selection Committee is now set to meet in public, over videoconference, on Tuesday at 1 p.m., to redo its vote to make nominations to the California Coastal Commission. The nominations, which must be limited to city council members or county supervisors, are due to state Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon by March 3. Rendon then has 30 days to appoint one of the Central Coast nominees from either Santa Cruz, Monterey or San Mateo counties.

David Loy, an attorney with nonprofit First Amendment Coalition who specializes in California’s open-meetings law — known as the Brown Act — called the county’s conduct an “outrageous transparency violation.”

“This is virtually unparalleled in my experience,” Loy said. “I’ve never heard of a local agency that has so openly violated the Brown Act for 30 years. This is a new one for me. Someone was seriously asleep at the wheel. This is a significant betrayal of the public trust.”

A city selection committee is tasked with appointing city representatives to regional agencies. In Santa Cruz County, that means agencies such as the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District, the Local Agency Formation Commission and Central Coast Community Energy’s policy and operations boards.

Arguably its most important role is to offer Santa Cruz County-based nominees to represent the Central Coast on the high-profile Coastal Commission, the influential 12-member board that oversees land use along the state’s coastal zone. Given the high value of the land and the environmental assets in the coastal zone, the Coastal Commission has been called the single most powerful land-use authority in the United States.

The City Selection Committee’s voting members are limited to the mayors of the county’s incorporated cities — Santa Cruz, Capitola, Watsonville and Scotts Valley — but the meetings are convened by the county administrator’s office and invariably attended by the chair of the five-member board of supervisors, the county administrative officer and the four cities’ city managers.

Capitola City Councilmember Yvette Brooks is keeping her name in the ring for the Coastal Commission.
Capitola City Councilmember Yvette Brooks is keeping her name in the ring for the Coastal Commission.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The regional board seats appointed by the committee often rotate among Watsonville, Scotts Valley, Santa Cruz and Capitola representation. Often, the appointments made by the City Selection Committee have already been voted on, in public, by the local city councils. Still, law requires the final appointing vote be made in public.

But that hasn’t happened in Santa Cruz County for decades. And until recently, the committee showed no trace of existence on the county’s website.

Instead, this exclusive group of elected leaders and government executives often met at local restaurants, such as inside the wine cellar room at Michael’s on Main in Soquel, Paradise Beach Grille in Capitola, Ella’s at the Airport in Watsonville, Mozaic in Santa Cruz and the Stonehouse Bar & Grill inside the Scotts Valley Hilton hotel, according to more than 20 years of meeting minutes the county provided to Lookout upon request.

County Administrative Officer Carlos Palacios, who has been responsible for convening the meetings since at least 2016 (he has attended them for longer, having served as Watsonville city manager for 18 years), declined to answer Lookout’s questions regarding the conduct of the City Selection Committee.

The Jan. 27 meeting isn’t the first time the City Selection Committee pushed forward Coastal Commission nominations in an illegal meeting. Minutes from meetings in 2009 show the committee met at the since-closed Sandabs restaurant in Scotts Valley and nominated then-Santa Cruz County Supervisor Mark Stone, Scotts Valley City Councilmember Dene Bustichi and Monterey County Supervisor Dave Potter. Stone would go on to be selected to serve in the role until 2012.

Then, in 2012, at a meeting hosted at the restaurant inside the Scotts Valley Hilton, the City Selection Committee approved a Coastal Commission nominations list in a private meeting. Bustichi was added to the list again, along with Santa Cruz City Councilmember Lynn Robinson, Capitola Mayor Michael Termini, and Monterey County Supervisors Jane Parker and Simón Salinas.

Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley said he is taking his name out of consideration for the Coastal Commission.
Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley said he is taking his name out of consideration for the Coastal Commission.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

District 2 Supervisor Friend told Lookout on Feb. 14 that he didn’t expect Tuesday’s redo of the Coastal Commission nomination meeting to change anything. However, at least one of the initial nominees plans to take their name out of consideration.

Keeley said he went into the Jan. 27 meeting assuming it was a legal gathering, just as he does for city council and other agency meetings.

Keeley, a former state assemblymember, said he was asked to be a nominee because of his résumé. However, he said he had “no idea” how Brooks and Friend were brought as the other nominees, nor that all three nominees circumvented public vetting. Keeley said he is “more than mildly unhappy” that the meeting was held illegally. Keeley placed blame on Palacios, saying he should have known that the meeting needed to be held in public with public notice.

“This is a mistake of very serious proportions, and I don’t want anything to do with this committee until I am assured that it’s being run consistently with the law,” Keeley said. “It’s a mess and far beyond unfortunate that this committee has been operating outside the law for years.”

District 3 Supervisor Justin Cummings wants his name considered for a Coastal Commission nomination.
District 3 Supervisor Justin Cummings wants his name considered for a Coastal Commission nomination.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Keeley said he no longer has any interest in being considered for the Coastal Commission and is pulling his name from the nominations list. Before voting on Tuesday, he said he wants assurance the meeting is legal, and a clear understanding of how the potential nominees were brought to the committee.

Brooks, another of the nominees, said she knew the list of nominations had not been publicly vetted. She said Capitola City Manager Jamie Goldstein called all of the Capitola City Council members and asked whether they were interested in serving on the Coastal Commission. Brooks said she still wants to be considered when the City Selection Committee meets to revote on Tuesday.

District 3 Supervisor Justin Cummings told Lookout he wanted to be considered for the Coastal Commission as well, whether through the City Selection Committee or a vote of the board of supervisors, which is the only other body with the authority to make nominations.

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