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Coastal Commission Competition: Hueso and Frye join scrum for environmental post

May 29, 2009 - 1:23 pm

Attention environmentalists, builders and anyone interested in the fate of California’s coasts: San Diego’s seat on the California Coastal Commission may be up for grabs.

The 12 voting members of the commission are charged with protecting California’s beaches by managing development along the state’s 840 mile coast. In recent years, the commission has tangled with developer Doug Manchester, cast crucial votes on Poseidon, Inc.’s proposal to build a desalination plant in Carlsbad, and approved an expanded Sea World complex  in San Diego.

The term of San Diego’s current representative on the board, City Council President Ben Hueso, will expire on May 31, though he’s been nominated for a second term. While it’s common for incumbents to be reappointed to the commission, circumstances have changed for Hueso since he was appointed in March 2007 to complete the term of former Chula Vista mayor Steve Padilla.

For one, he’s filed papers to run for State Assembly. But the seat must be held by a locally elected official, and state assemblyperson doesn’t count as locally elected. Thus, win or lose in 2010, Hueso could potentially serve no more than 18 months.

Also, when former Chula Vista Mayor Steve Padilla had to step down from the post in 2007, the Speaker of the Assembly was long-time Hueso friend Fabian Nunez. The two men were born in the same neighborhood of Barrio Logan, and though Nunez eventually made his career in Los Angeles, the two remained close. Nunez appointed Hueso to the commission in March 2007. But  Nunez has since been termed out of office, and sources tell CityBeat his replacement, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass,  wants to put her own mark on the commission by appointing someone new. A spokesperson for Bass, Shannon Murphy, said the speaker was still waiting for the final nominations list, due next week.

And there are four other candidates vying for the job: San Diego City Councilmember Donna Frye, Chula Vista City Councilmember Steve Castaneda, Carlsbad City Councilmember Ann Kulchin, and Oceanside City Councilmember Esther Sanchez.

But even though Bass has did not express an opinion on the matter, Bass is close friends with San Diego Assemblymember Lori Saldana. Sources tell CityBeat that while Saldana won’t actually be picking the commission member, her voice will be influential. Saldana herself told CityBeat that Bass’ office had already asked her which local environmental groups could provide useful input to the position (Even this list could be politically charged: Frye has been represented by Marco Gonzalez, the attorney for the environmental group Surfrider).

Listening to Saldana, Hueso doesn’t seem likely to be reappointed. She was critical of his support of the Bajagua project, the now-deceased proposal for a binational sewage treatment plant, and was concerned at the number of commission meetings Hueso has missed.

“Now he’s president of the council, he has a higher level of obligation in San Diego, it may be difficult to meet the travel obligations,” Saldana said. “Based on what I’ve seen in terms of scorecards and attendance records, he hasn’t met a lot of people’s expectations.”

Hueso was not immediately available for comment.

Saldana  outlined some of the qualifications she’d like to see in a new commission member: a strong environmental record, the ability to form coalitions, and preferably a woman.

Saldana and Frye have been close in the past, but some people in San Diego political circles say that Saldana may run for Ron Roberts’ seat on the Board of Supervisors, a job Frye has also expressed interest in getting. If that’s true, there could be some friction between the two. Though Frye’s term will also end in 2010, if she is appointed, and if she wins the Supervisor job, she would be allowed to complete her term on the commission. CityBeat expects to speak with Frye later today.

Castaneda said he hasn’t really started campaigning for the commission because he thinks Hueso is likely to be reappointed.

“I think anyone who knows me knows my environmental record,” he said. “But I won’t start pushing until it becomes clear that Hueso won’t be reappointed.”

The door for nominations will close next week, and Bass will have 30 days to make a selection. Coastal Commission spokesperson Sara Christie told CityBeat that if no new commissioner is named for the commission’s June meeting, the seat will be vacant.

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