Near the end of a long dinner chat in a small Coronado restaurant, Peter Douglas recalled his visit to San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja California, where Pacific gray whales go to breed, and where a controversy was brewing over Mitsubishi's $120 million proposal to site a salt-production facility.
Douglas said that as he and his group floated in a boat on the lagoon, mother whales approached close enough for their admirers to pet them, and they nudged their young offspring up for display, seemingly full of pride, much like a new human mom would. He called the experience “magical.”
For him, the encounter was a kind of “religious experience, in the sense of feeling the intelligence and the energy of another species, and feeling that that other species was seeing right through me, and that it could interpret my feelings.”
Meet Peter Douglas, executive director of the California Coastal Commission and one of the most powerful and controversial state officials.
Such soul-baring, almost mystical language is not uncommon for Douglas. If you poke and prod in the right ways, you can really get him going on the touchy-feely stuff. And it's certainly appropriate for an environmentalist who says he long ago became swept up in a deep love affair with California's coast.
It was during his high school years in Monterey when Douglas became intimate with the convergence of sand and surf. While other kids did whatever other kids did, Douglas would head down to the rocks at the foot of the forest “and sit on the seashore and look at the stars and the moon and listen to the waves and hear the seals and the sea lions and just think about life and how we fit into it. And I got an early sense there of our responsibility to walk gently on this earth. We have this great capacity, more than any other species ever alive, to so easily destroy other life forms and habitats and ecosystems.
“People,” he continued, “have come to the sea for inspiration, for the calming effect, for just the mystery and the awe of the ocean itself—you know, what's down there? What's out there? The beat of the waves—measuring that against the beat our hearts. That's a powerful, powerful intersection of forces—the land the sea and the air, the sky. It had a very powerful effect on me, and I don't for a moment apologize or somehow feel I have to feel inhibited about my strong environmental ethic.”
This is, perhaps, an unusual way for a longtime, high-level state bureaucrat to talk, and candor with the press isn't the only unusual trick he's got in his bag. Douglas has been top cop of the coast for 18 years. His ability to stay put—or, as National Public Radio's John McChesny said it, to “defy gravity”—in such a powerful government post for as long he has is also quite strange.
Douglas oversees a staff of roughly 145. His agency is responsible for applying the Coastal Act of 1976 to anything that anyone wants to do in California's coastal zone. He and his staff make recommendations on permit applications for everything from beachfront-home remodels to new luxury-home and resort hotel projects on pristine seaside land. The decision makers, the 12 coastal commissioners themselves, rely heavily on those recommendations.
Douglas has somehow managed to survive in a highly charged, politically volatile arena, despite repeated efforts by his enemies to topple him. He says it's because he doesn't exactly hate his job. “It's a very controversial position. It's a controversial program,” he said. “But I think one of the reasons I've been able to survive in the job is-first of all, it's something I believe in. It's not a job for me; it's an avocation. It's a labor of love.”
But part of the reason for his staying power might be the way he handles harsh criticism—and he gets plenty of that.
The Coastal Commission, originally created by a voter-approved initiative to ensure the maximum possible coastal protection and the maximum possible public access, is routinely called dictatorial and abusive, tyrannical and often inconsistent by property-rights advocates. Douglas, who co-crafted the initiative, has been targeted, he says, by politicians, other bureaucrats and special interests for not playing ball. He has been critiqued by some environmentalists for giving away too much and going too easy on project applicants. The commission is currently under scrutiny by the California Supreme Court amid allegations that the Coastal Commission is wholly illegal in its very structure.
Meanwhile, he's repeatedly condemned by critics who say he's something of a socialist environmental dictator.
Douglas says he takes it all in stride, a skill he learned at UCLA Law School, when he was having trouble accepting bad reviews of his legal arguments. He said a friend told him, “‘Wait a minute, you gotta understand that there's a difference between criticizing what you say and do and criticizing you personally. Don't take it personally. Then you can maybe hear what it's about and you can do a better job.'
“A light went on in my head,” he said. “He's right. Just learning that lesson and internalizing that lesson, not to take criticism of what I say and do personally, or as a personal attack, has made all the difference in the world.”
Being in a high-profile, powerful position means being a lightning rod. One appraisal that must've stung Douglas was having his ideology compared to Hitler's. The critic, Wade Major of Malibu, in a 2001 public address to the Coastal Commission, referenced Douglas' birth in Germany and compared Douglas' own ideology to the principles of national socialism.
“You have an agenda,” Major said, in Douglas' direction. “A ‘vision'—to use your word—for a new social order in which individuals subjugate their self-interest to a nameless collective that naturally grants you the police powers to do its bidding. You dream of a social order in which perceived inequality is forcibly corrected in the name of ‘public access,' with the commission enforcing environmental martial law, sidestepping democracy and due process by declaring a perpetual state of ecological emergency.”
Major continued, “Mr. Douglas' foot soldiers from the Sierra Club and elsewhere have run around the state like an army of Chicken Littles screaming that without his imperious wisdom, without the commission's unregulated power, the sky will fall and our coastal ecosystem will crumble. As though millions of years of evolution, biodiversity and ecosystem development would be obliterated by the installation of a garbage disposal, the erection of a fence or prudent brush clearance.
“I know I'm not going to convince you, Mr. Douglas. You're a demagogue and a fanatic. A collectivist cultist preaching the virtues of self-abnegation as a civic duty.”
Douglas counters that he was a bit young to be picking up on the nuances of Nazism when he lived in Germany. “I was 2 when [Hitler] fell, but I was a precocious 2—politically precocious,” he mused.
Kidding aside, Wade Major is not, by a long shot, the only person who's detected socialist leanings in Douglas' comments and public speeches. Douglas doesn't apologize.
“Socialist is not a nasty word in my dictionary,” he said. “We have governed in this country from fear for so long that words like ‘liberal,' ‘socialist' or ‘community interest' have been made into derogatory terms, when in fact the community interest is what really started this country.
“Communities of interest came here, and there was a community adherence. Well, that didn't come to the West,” he said, where “rugged individualism” took hold. “As people moved from the East to the West, I guess that notion of community well-being, community interest, got lost along the way. Maybe it got burned up in the desert.”
Though he says he respects private property rights, those rights seem to take a back seat to the protection of wetlands, beaches and cliffs, and preservation of dwindling habitat for coastal wildlife.
“Some people believe that because they own the property, they own everything on it, so they can with it what they want, they can dam up the river, they can pollute it, they can cut down the trees, burn the forest, destroy the habitat-well, that's not the way a society can function and survive.”
Douglas responds to people like Wade Major with something akin to “sticks and stones,” but at times he's been targeted with more than mere words. The first time someone orchestrated a campaign to get him fired was in 1991 when Douglas was in his sixth years as executive director of the Coastal Commission.
David Malcolm, who was convicted in the spring of 2003 on corruption charges stemming from illegal dealings while a member of the San Diego Port Commission, was in 1991 a member of the Coastal Commission, having been appointed by Speaker of the Assembly Willie Brown.
Douglas said Malcolm suggested to some of his commission colleagues that the commission should ask for Douglas' resignation. He told them he had information that Douglas had done something terrible—something of a personal nature. Douglas hasn't told this story in public, until now, and still declines to say precisely what the accusation was. He'll say only that it was “a horrendous, outrageous charge” that “would have been, if true, a firing offense.”
He said Malcolm and another Brown appointee, Mark Nathanson, “had been after me for years.” He said the two had made it clear that they wanted Douglas to be the sort of bureaucrat that conforms his recommendations on project applications to Malcolm and Nathanson's desires.
(Like Malcolm, Nathanson has since been convicted of corruption. About a decade ago, he pleaded guilty to racketeering, tax fraud and bribery charges, and was sentenced to four years and nine months in prison and fined $200,000. Essentially, he was soliciting money in exchange for favorable votes on projects before the Coastal Commission.)
Douglas responded to the pressure from Malcolm and Nathanson by telling them that he'd be more than happy to publicly ask the commission if basing staff recommendations on the opinions of particular commissioners would make good, sound policy. Obviously, they had no interest in making their sentiment public, so that was the end of it until Malcolm dropped his bombshell on Douglas.
Malcolm, who's currently serving a work-furlough sentence, did not respond to CityBeat's request for an interview.
Douglas said Malcolm hired a private investigator to dig up dirt on him, but the investigator turned up nothing. Undaunted, Malcolm told a couple of fellow commissioners that he knew the accusations were true, citing documents filed with Marin County government. One of those fellow commissioners was Gary Giacomini, who at the time was a politically powerful member of the Marin County Board of Supervisors and an ardent supporter of Douglas.
Giacomini followed up on what Malcolm had said and found that the documents said nothing about Douglas. At the next Coastal Commission meeting, Giacomini, well known for his colorful vocabulary and his knack for making his enemies feel very, very small, brought the full weight of his considerable wrath down upon Malcolm, upbraiding him in public on more than one occasion over the course of a few days.
“He ran into Malcolm in the lobby,” Douglas said, “and he just went up to him and took him apart. They almost got into fisticuffs. People were just aghast because [Giacomini] was loud, too. He just totally intimidated Malcolm—basically just beat the guy up verbally.”
At a subsequent meeting in Huntington Beach, the commission took a vote on Douglas reappointment. Malcolm was in the building, but he sent his alternate, San Diego's Wes Pratt, to vote on his behalf. Pratt made the motion to reappoint Douglas, and the vote was unanimous. Nathanson was absent.
Douglas said Malcolm believed that the information he had was true. Douglas found out later that the rumor was fed to Malcolm by someone from a San Francisco law firm: “[Malcolm], in fact, told me later that he was set up, that he was used by this law firm, whose attorneys were angry at me for recommending denial of some of their clients' projects.”
Douglas said he took that incident personally because it hurt his family (he's since divorced from his wife) and involved innocent people. It “was a personal attack,” he said. “It was the most painful because they were outrageous charges and, obviously, hurt my family and impugned my personal integrity and impugned others as well. It was just nasty. It was sewer tactics.”
Every other time he was targeted for removal, he added, “I understood that it was political. I know if a majority of commissioners no longer have confidence in the work that I do, they have the right to replace me, and I've never questioned that.”
It's fine if they want him out for political reasons,” he said, but, “I want the world to know that.”
In 1996, he didn't have to tell the world about a politically motivated attempt to separate him from his job. The Los Angeles Times did it simply by quoting the man who called for his head. Doug Wheeler, Secretary of Resources under then-Gov. Pete Wilson, made it clear that he wanted Douglas out based on the executive director's stance on two unrelated issues.
One was Douglas' opposition to a proposal to build 3,300 homes in the Bolsa Chica area of Orange County. Douglas wanted 900 homes taken out of the deal because they were to be built on a wetland, and he declared that part of the project was inconsistent with the Coastal Act. Wheeler wanted Douglas to defer to the Orange County Board of Supervisors' earlier approval of the project.
Wheeler's other gripe was over Douglas' opposition to an amended agreement that would allow Southern California Edison to wriggle free of some of the work it was required to do to compensate for the adverse environmental impacts caused by expansion of the San Onofre nuclear power plant.
Douglas, declined discussing the background of the Wheeler matter lest it appear he was criticizing someone who appoints members to the commission, in this case Gov. Wilson.
The L.A. Times story noted that Wheeler's campaign to fire Douglas, widely believed to be at the behest of Wilson, “came less than a month after a new Republican majority took control of the commission for the first time in the agency's history.” The story noted that “Douglas and Republicans and some Democrats on the commission have long clashed over development.”
Douglas was deluged with an outpouring of support from coastal advocates and newspaper editorial writers and columnists up and down the state who thought payback was a shoddy reason to fire the head of the Coastal Commission. The ensuing meeting—held in same location as the 1991 meeting following the Malcolm incident—was “a circus,” Douglas said. “It happens in Huntington Beach. I have a real strong emotional and professional connection to Huntington Beach.”
The coup failed. Wilson and Wheeler were gone in 1998. Meanwhile, Douglas remains despite, in his estimation, “at least a dozen attempts” to remove him.
Douglas was ready for the rough-and-tumble of statewide politics from the start. In 1985, when Douglas sought the executive director post, then-Coastal Commission Chair Mel Nutter, warned him that the job was “permanently situated between the dog and the fire hydrant.”
Prior to his appointment in 1985, Douglas had been the commission's deputy executive director, a job he created when he successfully convinced the executive director and the commission chair that the agency needed such a position that he was just the man to fill it.
And he was certainly qualified. Not only had he helped craft the 1972 ballot initiative that created the Coastal Commission, but also the earlier failed legislative attempt to create it, as well as the language of the 1976 legislation that authorized the Coastal Act.
Douglas, working for Assemblymember Alan Sieroty, a Democrat from Beverly Hills, had been part of an effort by the growing environmental movement to halt a trend to develop the coast in piecemeal fashion.
Coastal cities and counties were being “very parochial in their control of land use,” he said. “They would permit development that had adverse impacts outside their jurisdiction. They would permit development that denied public access to people who didn't live in the community. They allowed development that destroyed views in places that people from all over the world came to see.”
In the early 1970s, Douglas said, “there were fundamental, philosophical, societal values in conflict. At stake was the coast. Environmentalists wanted it preserved. Industry wanted it open for development. Private-property rights advocates wanted the government off their backs. And local governments wanted “home rule”—control of their own coastlines
“The Coastal Commission and the Coastal Act were born in the crucible of conflict,” Douglas said. “And the public interest prevailed.”
Three decades later, both are mired in conflict again, this time as the subject of a legal challenge. Ronald Zumbrun, a longtime Coastal Commission adversary who estimates that he's sued the commission on about 30 occasions, this time has the commission on the ropes. He's arguing that the way the agency is structured makes it inherently unconstitutional.
The commission is stocked with four appointees each by the governor, the speaker of the Assembly and the Senate Rules Committee. The commission is an executive-branch agency, but eight appointees come from the legislative branch, which, until recently, had the ability to fire them at will. The commission also serves a quasi-judicial purpose, as well, when it rules on appeals of earlier decisions. All that, Zumbrun says, adds up to a serious violation of separation of powers.
A trial judge agreed with him, as did an appellate court, which focused on the concern that the eight coastal commissioners appointed by the Legislature can be relieved of their positions at will, meaning the majority of the commission is vulnerable to powerful political interference.
The state Legislature has since passed, and Governor Gray Davis has signed, a bill that fixes the terms of the legislative appointees, leaving only the four commissioners appointed by the governor as at-will members. State attorneys hope the Supreme Court will rule that the new law solves the problem. Both sides are now waiting for the state's highest court to set a date for oral arguments.
If Zumbrun gets his way, the court will find that a legislative majority of commissioners makes the Coastal Commission a legislative function only. That would strip the commission of its executive power to grant or deny permits and its judicial power to hear appeals. A Zumbrun victory would pretty much emasculate the agency. “We'll be left with a Coastal Commission that only sets policy,” Zumbrun said, and that would be just fine with the folks who think Douglas is drunk with the power to micromanage.
Zumbrun added that Douglas sees the suit as an attempt “to get rid of the Coastal Commission—that's OK, he can say anything he wants. But he will see that the results of our lawsuit will end up with a Coastal Commission that is paying attention to what their duty is, which is to protect our coast, and stop the political favors and unequal treatment of applicants [and] the arrogance.”
Matters of constitutionality aside, Zumbrun says, the commission is dictatorial and too political in its decision-making. He says it creates a climate that allows, for example, one homeowner to get favorable treatment on a permit application if he hands over to the state a chunk of beach, while his neighbor, who seeks the same type of permit but doesn't give up land, gets the shaft.
“Up and down the coast, there's no certainty,” Zumbrun said. “You don't know what you're getting into until the thing plays out, and if you're not willing to play ball of some nature, you don't get treated the same. It's wrong. Politics are involved.
“I support the Coastal Act and I support good government, but we aren't getting it. The Coastal Commission is a form of tyranny. What they're trying to do is to make it so difficult for people on the coast that... there will be less people there. A proper commission wouldn't be trading the environment for political favors... they would be protecting the environment on it's merits.”
As for Douglas, he said, “His philosophy is to return back to nature on the coast,” and he has “an attitude of a ruler rather than a civil servant who's supposed to be answering to the entire public, including property owners.”
Counters Douglas: “That's the rhetoric of a special interest being gored. We've heard that before. You have an ideologue talking, and those are the kinds of spears that they throw at the Coastal Commission staff because they can't argue on the merits [of the Coastal Act].”
Douglas isn't taking the court case lightly. At stake, he said, is “the integrity of the Coastal Act, the integrity of the commission and the future of the coast.”
If the state loses the case, Douglas said, it would have to ask voters to pass an initiative changing the constitution so that the commission's current structure is legal. If that happens, Zumbrun and his ilk may end up losing big, Douglas said. Voters might allow environmentalists to give commission more strength than it already has. “They're not going to limit it to just the makeup of the commission,” he said. “My sense is that they'll deal with other aspects of the Coastal Act that currently are weaknesses.”
But if the court makes its ruling retroactive, putting a cloud of uncertainty over just about every decision ever made by the commission, no one really knows what will happen.
For now, however, the commission remains intact and busily at work. Douglas was in Coronado two weeks ago for the commission's monthly meeting, which travels up and down the state. The most controversial issue on the agenda for the four-day meeting was a housing-and-hotel development proposed for Orange County's Dana Point Headlands, one of Southern California's last large stretches of pristine coastline.
The developer wants to build 125 homes for those in the high tax bracket and beachfront hotel. The project would require rebuilding an existing seawall to protect 75 of the homes. Sticking points have been the seawall (the commissions regards seawalls as destructive) and the project's encroachment into what's known in commission parlance as an “esha,” an environmentally sensitive habitat area.
The Dana Point Headlands is “like so many special places along the coast-it's a magnet for conflict,” Douglas said, adding the all the usual-suspect issues are at play: sensitive habitat, public access, beach erosion, scenic vistas, private-property rights and what he considers bad past land-use decisions. “It's another example of the clash of interests. That's just a microcosm of the greater scheme of things along the coast.”
On Oct. 9, at about 8 p.m., at the end of hours upon hours of testimony and discussion, the members of the Coastal Commission agreed to send the project back to the drawing board but told the developer not to worry; a bit more tinkering will turn up a good project. Douglas said he'll likely to agree to some encroachment into “the esha.”
At the meeting's close, Douglas chatted with the project's applicant for a few minutes and then, looking like an aged college student, slung his backpack over his shoulder and went out to dinner.
Afterward, the executive director exited the restaurant and found a half-dozen or so of his staff enjoying beverages at a table outside. They traded brief, good-natured analyses of the day's business before Douglas said goodnight.
Once out of earshot, he said, grinning slightly, “They get nervous when I talk to the press.”