Legislature's Latest Outrage on Preserving California History

By Richard Cowan, former Chair of the Historic State Capitol Commission
Public Accountability for Our Capitol

The public is unfortunately used to seeing the California Legislature behave poorly, whether in failing to discipline members for sexual harassment, opposing unions for its staff, questionable spending of state funds, hiring family members, or lack of transparency. This poor behavior continues with their Capitol Annex Project, which seeks to tear down a historic building and obstruct the view of the historic West face of the 1860’s Capitol. It has been grossly mismanaged and conducted contrary to law, resulting in cost growth and unimagined damage to the historic Capitol Park trees. But their latest actions have even surprised a California appellate judge.

Groups opposing the Project have filed four lawsuits seeking to save money, trees, and historic buildings. One of the suits called the Legislature to account on its failure to consult with the State Historic Preservation officer early in the Project planning. The State Historic Preservation Office was created in response to federal law calling on each State to administer a Historic Preservation Program, creating registers of historic places within each state and administering a program designed to review and assist plans for projects to avoid destruction of history. Until now, California has been a leader in historic preservation, rehabilitating many State buildings to continue serving the public in safety while preserving our history.

Judge Christopher Krueger of the Superior Court had drafted his SHPO tentative ruling finding in favor of the opposition group and held his hearing. But, on the night of June 26, the Joint Rules Chair, Assemblymember Ken Cooley, dropped into a last-minute Budget Trailer Bill SB 189 amendment language that exempted the Project from review by the State Historic Preservation Office. This hasty act meant there was no analysis of the SHPO language by the Budget Committee for legislators to study, no committee hearing, and no ability for the public to speak in opposition. This is an unseemly act, even by the Legislature’s standards.

Because of SB 189, the Judge modified his opinion.

“…… Either way, the Legislature has gutted Plaintiff's case like a fish. ……. The Court therefore modifies its ruling and SUSTAINS the demurrer (in favor of the Legislature) …..”

So there you have it. Break the law, get caught, come before a judge, and then in the middle of the night, in a Budget Bill having nothing to do with the Project, write another law getting yourself out of the problem.

This is a dangerous precedent.

If this approach is allowed to stand, what is to stop any City or County to exempt its own projects from SHPO review? Why not allow any developer to find a legislator, like Assemblymember Ken Cooley, to write a bill exempting any private donor’s project from SHPO review?

Who can fix this wrong? Only three people, the Speaker of the Assembly, Anthony Rendon, the Pro Tem of the Senate, Toni Atkins, once admired as a Preservationist, and Governor Newsom, who if he allows SB 189 to stand, adds one more bit of unsavory baggage to his train bound for the Presidency.

Write a paper letter or call these three leaders, now.