It didn’t take an offshore oil spill for questions to emerge in recent years over whether Orange County’s seaside cities take enough interest in their public committees focused on coastal issues. 

Such city panels — usually appointed by their elected city councils and varying by name — can give crucial advice to elected leaders on problems such as ocean water bacteria, stormwater runoff into the shore, beach sand loss, erosion, and sea level rise affecting their share of the coastline.

They can also be undermined, carrying little influence, argue some locals and veterans on these boards.

The tarring of some of Orange County’s coastal habitats and beaches this month, following a major pipeline leak, have prompted another look at how coastal city officials treat their experts, and whether these panels have the ability to do meaningful work.

Some critics say certain boards are simply ignored.

§

In Dana Point, for example, there’s the complaint that the city’s Ocean Water Quality Subcommittee has been rendered ineffective and rarely meets. 

Dana Point’s ocean water committee met once in 2020, according to an online city log of commission meetings. It was the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic and a time of tapered off government functions deemed nonessential for many cities across the county. Other committees in town also met very infrequently that year. 

Though one committee devoted to Arts and Culture in Dana Point was able to meet four times across 2020, by comparison, according to the log. The city’s Financial Review Committee also got together four times that year. 

One member of that city’s ocean committee, Bill Lane, responded to requests for comment with a written email:

“I would label the Dana Point Ocean Water Quality Subcommittee as ineffective. Nothing notable has ever been accomplished by the group. We merely gather to be briefed by the staff as to their activities. Inputs are discouraged, and seemingly never make it to the council’s ear.  Meetings are few and far between … Council people campaign (on) promoting clean beaches and a clean ocean. After being elected, they clearly lose interest.”

After the publication of this story, Dana Point Councilman Mike Frost, who sits on the panel as a council representative, got back to Voice of OC and responded to those concerns over the phone, saying:

“To the extent that someone on the advisory board or a resident has practical ideas for us to get better, just like any organization, we’re looking to get better and you always want to improve.”

Councilman Michael Villar — who represents the Capistrano Beach area of town that’s seen troubling rates of beach sand loss and signs of coastal erosion, and recently spoke out against a controversial rail project proposed for the area — declined to comment for this story, citing a busy schedule.

Such committees are generally composed of willing residents with at least some type of ocean-related expertise.

The panels also tend to vary by name, depending on the city.

Dennis Baker, who was until recently a member of the Newport Beach Water Quality Committee for 13 years, said there’s one word which can be found in many, within their titles or outlined purpose: 

“Advisory.”

Tarballs along the Orange County coast on Oct. 6, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

§

“The city is always loath to give these committees too much power, they’re very paranoid about that, that’s why the word ‘advisory’ is in there. You have these committees and that’s all you can do — make suggestions,” Baker said in an interview. 

While other committees may get a higher degree of power — take planning commissions, for example, where commissioners can vote to approve a development project unless the city council overturns it — “the bottom line is the council makes the final decisions,” Baker said.

Just a few months ago, San Clemente’s elected City Council made the controversial choice to disband and reorganize one advisory committee singularly focused on the city’s 4.7 miles of beach, much of which San Clemente itself controls. 

[Read: San Clemente Disbands Coastal Advisory Committee Amidst Numerous Beach Crises]

Council members voted with little discussion at their June 15 meeting to disband their Coastal Advisory Committee, while at the same time lumping issues of coastal health into a more generally-focused panel known as the Beaches, Parks & Recreation Commission. 

Officials supporting the move, then and today, argue ocean health experts still have a voice in town:

“The council made sure that we appointed people that had expertise with coastal issues in that committee,” said San Clemente Mayor Kathy Ward, providing a written statement Monday because she said she was busy in meetings with oil spill response officials.

Of the seven members on the Beaches Parks & Recreation Commission, two are required to have ocean expertise.

Those two who currently sit on the committee are Ben Benumof and Jorine Campopiano — the latter of whom sat on the old Coastal Advisory Committee and opposed its disbanding.

Namely, Campopiano warned the council in a letter — prior to their June decision — that the move would dilute the original panel’s scope and purpose:

“The city continues to face difficult and complex on-going coastal issues that can be advanced by the (committee),” she wrote at the time, later adding “our coastal issues are too important to fold into a separate committee that currently runs at full capacity.”

Campopiano didn’t respond to Voice of OC requests seeking comment for this story.

Ward, asked whether she shares concerns that the restructuring dilutes the original committee’s purpose, said: 

​​”I am happy with the people we put on the (Beaches Parks and Recreation Commission) who have expertise in coastal issues, water quality and experience with the coastal commission.”

View of San Clemente State Beach from the pier on Nov. 15, 2020. Credit: OMAR SANCHEZ, Voice of OC

§

The seaside community of San Clemente faces persisting coastline threats on a number of fronts: 

Beach sand loss poses risks to recreational areas and facilities; bacteria around the pier put the city on environmental group Heal the Bay’s  “Beach Bummer” list last year; and, stormwater runoff from city streets poses ocean pollution hazards. 

San Clemente Councilwoman Laura Ferguson, who opposed the council majority’s June decision, said on Monday that San Clemente’s committees in general go unheard.

“It won’t change until the council prioritizes some way to address more autonomy with our commissions and committees, and maybe a new communications program that allows them to communicate with us better during public meetings,” Ferguson said. 

One former member of the disbanded Coastal Advisory Committee voiced those same concerns more little more than a year ago, as reported by Voice of OC at the time, in this resignation letter to the City Council: 

“There are numerous reasons for selecting this course of action, including the ongoing inaction of the City Council … as well as what use the council finds in our activities,” reads the emailed, 2020 letter from former coastal committee member John McGuigan.

He added: “That lack of interest is telling about how most council members view the work of these important committees and the outreach effort they encourage to ‘regular’ citizens. Current circumstances make clear that this activity is not valued by anyone at City Hall.”

Ferguson praised the two ocean-focused members of the Beaches, Parks and Recreation Commission as people she’s been “very impressed by — I think they’re going to make a great impact.” 

“But again, it’s the council’s job to make sure they’re truly utilized — they’ve been grossly underutilized from what I saw in the last three years on the council,” Ferguson said.

Ward, defending her city’s interest in ocean health, pointed to the city’s move to convene “a Blue Ribbon committee two years ago to help us investigate a water quality issue at our pier. Those were all experts that have donated their time to this issue.”

“Our residents also tax themselves to fund a Clean Ocean Fund which is administered by staff and funds the city’s efforts to keep our ocean and beaches clean from runoff, which includes public education.”

She also said City Hall has kept a direct line, most recently, with disaster authorities in responding to the oil spill this month as the city’s Beaches, Parks and Recreation Director — Samantha Wylie — has been plugged into “the emergency operations center that was activated with the spill.”  

Oil spill cleanup efforts resume Tuesday, Oct. 5. Credit: US Coast Guard

§

Baker, in Newport Beach, said his city has had its “ups and downs” on taking coastal health seriously:

“Water quality efforts have been successful in keeping staff engaged, partly because we have interested staff leadership, but I have attended meetings in the past where the attitude was, ‘Let’s just get through this as fast as we can and get out of here.’ And that’s very frustrating because it kind of conveys a diminishing of the importance of the committee.” 

Toni Nelson, a Capistrano Beach resident who has spoken out on beach sand loss issues in Dana Point, said local officials tend to throw up their hands over coastal issues because ownership of beaches can be split up and sliced between state, city and county jurisdictions.

“Basically, nobody’s owning the problem but the fact is that, really, we all own it. We’ve been begging all stakeholders to come to the table. Mother Nature doesn’t look at this and go, ‘Oh this is a state beach and this is a city beach,’” Nelson said in an interview.

Sure, some cities can’t as far as approving or denying offshore drilling permits, but “there’s so much they can be doing,” says Sarah Spinuzzi, a Senior Staff Attorney with Orange County Coastkeeper. “Cities should be thinking about what is under their control.”

One example comes to mind.

“Often times cities aren’t paying attention to things as simple as residents washing their cars from home and letting chemicals flow into stormwater drains which let out into the ocean,” Spinuzzi said. “I would say that it’s true across most cities in Orange County, that their public works departments are not paying attention to such regulations. The best start is with the laws you have.”

“We just didn’t need this at all,” Nelson says of this month’s offshore pipeline leak. “We had enough issues in Capistrano Beach.”

“Now oil spills,” she added. “The whole thing seems like a bit of a disaster.”

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

BREAKING TEXT ALERTS

Subscribe today to receive Voice of OC’s breaking news text messages (free beyond your standard messaging rates).

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.