Coastal Commission nominations: Santa Cruz County adds supervisors Cummings and Koenig to final list

Santa Cruz County Supervisors Justin Cummings (left) and Manu Koenig.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Following the revelation that Santa Cruz County’s original nominations to the California Coastal Commission were made behind closed doors without public involvement, a full do-over was in order, resulting in an almost entirely new list of nominees. Capitola City Councilmember Yvette Brooks is also on the slate headed to California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who has a month to decide among nominees from Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Mateo counties.

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With a chance to put a local representative on the vastly powerful California Coastal Commission for the first time in more than a decade, Santa Cruz County elected officials have agreed to send three names to Sacramento for consideration.

District 3 County Supervisor Justin Cummings, District 1 County Supervisor Manu Koenig and Capitola City Councilmember Yvette Brooks will each be up against nominees from Monterey and San Mateo counties. The ultimate decision lies solely with California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who will have all of March to make the appointment to the Coastal Commission, the quasi-judicial arm of state government that oversees land use and policy issues along California’s 1,100-mile long coastal zone.

The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to approve the local triumvirate as the county’s nominees. Brooks already earned a nomination from the county’s City Selection Committee last week but sought a reaffirmation of her nomination from the supervisors. The deadline for the counties to send nominations is Friday.

This final list of nominees looks considerably different from an original and controversial list approved Jan. 27 by the City Selection Committee. Lookout found that the City Selection Committee, comprised of the four sitting mayors in the county’s incorporated cities, held a private meeting, without public knowledge or participation, and voted Brooks, Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley and District 2 County Supervisor Zach Friend as Coastal Commission nominees — a violation of the state’s open public meetings law. Lookout then learned that this committee, convened by the county, had been hosting illegal private meetings for decades in which the members voted on appointments and nominations to regional public boards.

The county’s legal counsel advised the committee to invalidate the Jan. 27 nominations and redo the meeting to vote in public. During take two, the committee advanced only Brooks’ name, leaving Keeley and Friend off the list. The county then promised change and said future meetings of the City Selection Committee would be public.

Cummings’ nomination was expected. Cummings, who earned a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology from UC Santa Cruz, told Lookout in mid-February that he intended to put his name forward as a nominee to the supervisors during their Feb. 28 meeting. His nomination was listed as an agenda item ahead of Tuesday’s meeting. Koenig’s interest in the nomination, however, comes as more of a surprise.

District 3 Supervisor Justin Cummings.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In the weeks following the illegal vote by the City Selection Committee, Koenig told Lookout he was not interested in seeking a nomination. He described the byzantine work of the commission as “hearing appeals about people’s fences up and down the coast,” and said it didn’t “sound like an interesting policy initiative.” He even questioned why Friend, a then-nominee, would want to add that kind of work to his plate.

“The amount of nuance is insane,” Koenig told Lookout. “Let’s just say there are more valuable ways I can use my time to serve my constituents.”

Koenig, however, had a change of heart. At Tuesday’s meeting, he asked the supervisors to add his name as a last-minute Coastal Commission nominee. That move, he told Lookout, was meant in part to demonstrate that “no backdoor decisions were happening” with his nomination amid the concerns over transparency. He said he is still concerned about the amount of work a Coastal Commission appointment would bring.

“I still have some of those hesitations, it is a lot more work to take on,” Koenig said. “What ultimately convinced me was conversations with different people in my community who felt that my ability to approach issues in an unbiased and creative way might be what the Coastal Commission needs. They encouraged me to apply.”

District 1 Supervisor Manu Koenig.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Although he received an invalidated nomination during the private meeting Jan. 27, Friend did not put his name forward Tuesday as a nominee, despite having the power to do so.

The 12-member Coastal Commission has been called the most powerful land-use authority in the United States, considering the value of the land and environmental assets along California’s coast. The commission has prioritized coastal access for all Californians, and has also opposed armoring coastal properties against the impacts of climate change and sea-level rise. The commission has instead favored managed retreat — a strategy that essentially calls for coastal communities to lay down their shields and allow climate change to organically transform the coastline with minimal damage to human infrastructure. Some coastal communities and property owners have taken exception to this.

Especially in the wake of the January storms, Santa Cruz County is ground zero for the debate over managed retreat. The Coastal Commission is sure to be involved in issues such as Santa Cruz’s potential transformation of West Cliff Drive into a one-way road, the armoring of coastal property in communities such as Opal Cliffs and Rio Del Mar, and the county’s coastal land-use plan, which the Coastal Commission denied last year because of the county’s inclusion of armoring initiatives.

Rendon will have 30 days after Friday’s deadline to appoint someone or ask the counties for more nominations. His office in early February told Monterey County Weekly that Rendon will be looking for a candidate with a “strong environmental record, who supports coastal preservation, restoration, and access to all Californians.”


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