Remembering Joseph E. Bodovitz (1930 – 2024)

Joe Bodovitz sitting in living room
Joseph Bodovitz in 2015 oral history interview

On March 9, 2024, California lost one of its most revered public servants. For over forty years, Joseph Bodovitz stood at the center of the state’s regulatory process.  He was the founding executive director of both the San Francisco Bay  Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) and the California Coastal Commission. He was the executive director of the Public Utility Commission and headed up the California Environmental Trust. And before retirement, he agreed to serve as the project director for Bay Vision 2020. To be sure, his fingerprints could be found—one way or another—on some of the most important regulatory policies and decisions passed in California during the twentieth century—actions that would come to impact people throughout the Golden State, both then and now.

Joe, as most knew him, did not initially set his sights on government work. Born in Oklahoma City during the Great  Depression, he studied English literature at Northwestern University, and after serving in the Korean War, earned a graduate degree in journalism at Columbia University. In 1956, he accepted a job as a reporter with the San Francisco Examiner, allowing him to return to a state and region for which the young Oklahoman had grown fond during his military service with the Navy. In the early 1960s, Bodovitz left journalism to take a position with the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, an organization whose work in urban policy and development had become critical in the postwar boom of San Francisco. Such work proved a good fit for Bodovitz, whose reporting at the Examiner focused on politics and urban redevelopment in the city. By 1964, his reputation and work at SPUR had caught the attention of Eugene McAteer, a state senator from San Francisco who sought to establish a government study on regulating development and fill in the San Francisco Bay. Bodovitz not only joined that new group, he took the lead in crafting what would become known as the Bay Plan. When finished, he also agreed to serve as the founding executive director of the new regulatory agency that plan created, BCDC.

Bodovitz was entering uncharted waters in his role at BCDC. There was no precedent for this kind of environmental regulation back in 1965. In fact, BCDC was the first regulatory agency of its kind in the nation. That meant Bodovitz, with the help of commission chair Melvin B. Lane, was charged with creating a regulatory structure and policy from scratch. The task was daunting, especially in light of the array of forces they confronted throughout the process, from city mayors and wealthy businesses to citizen groups and environmental organizations. For Bodovitz, the principle that guided his work was striking a balance between economic development and environmental conservation. “People sort of had to confront the legitimate interests of both conservation and development,” he recalled in his 1986 oral history. “They may disagree on a particular permit or a particular issue, but no fair-minded person can say marshlands aren’t important. Similarly, no fair-minded person can say ports aren’t important to the Bay Area economy.” As he would often point out, balance was the underlying principle of BCDC: “There is a reason why conservation and development are in the name.”

In 1972, California voters approved Proposition 20, which created another historic agency: the California Coastal Commission. And as quick as the votes were tallied around the creation of the new state agency, Bodovitz and Lane were asked to bring their expertise from BCDC to the regulation of the state’s 1,100-mile coastline.  In the familiar role of executive director, Bodovitz began to adapt the regulatory structure and policies of the bay to the coast, crafting what would become the coastal plan. His experience aside, the task proved even more daunting this time around. As Bodovitz recalled, the stakes were higher and the issues much more complex. “I don’t mean to make the BCDC planning sound simple because God knows it wasn’t; but relative to what we were dealing with in the Coastal Commission—it was simpler.” Ultimately, that work created a foundation for coastal regulation which would be studied around the world, and help made California one of the most pristine coastal regions of the Western Hemisphere. Fifty years later, the shorelines of Golden State still stand as a legacy of Bodovitz’s work.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Bodovitz’s public service on behalf of California continued. Shortly after he left the Coastal Commission in 1979, he was named executive director of the California Public Utilities Commission—the state agency charged with regulating utility companies throughout the state. Here, Bodovitz brought his experience and expertise to a range of important issues, from the breakup of telephone giant AT&T to the rising debate about deregulation and its impact on the state’s utility services. After his terms with the PUC, Bodovitz was tapped to head the newly created California Environmental Trust, as well as serve as the project director for Bay Vision 2020, which created a plan for a regional Bay Area government. In both organizations, Bodovitz provided invaluable leadership in helping to address a new set of environmental and development issues at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

It is an oft-stated adage among those in politics that civil servants are the unsung heroes of government. They conduct the research, staff the committees and commissions, and do the legwork that turns a written bill into an effective public policy. Joe Bodovitz was one of California’s unsung heroes. The Oral History Center had the privilege of conducting two oral histories with Bodovitz, documenting his experience and insights for future generations. The first, published in 1986 as part of the Ronald Reagan Gubernatorial Era Project, covered his experience at BCDC. Segments of this oral history are featured in the OHC’s Voices for the Environment exhibit and the accompanying podcast episode “Tides of Conservation.” The second oral history, published in 2015, offers an in-depth look at Bodovitz’s life and career. Both oral histories are available online through the links below.

Will Travis—another unsung hero of California in own right—perhaps said it best when writing the introduction for Bodovit’s 2015 oral history.

By having Joe as my friend for over 40 years and watching how other people treat him, I’ve learned why the Yiddish word mensch had to be created. A mensch is a person of integrity and honor, someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character. In colloquial American English, a mensch is a stand-up kind of guy. Joe is a mensch.

“Joseph E. Bodovitz: Management and Policy Directions,” an oral history conducted by Malca Chall in 1984, in The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, 1964-1973, Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

“Joseph E. Bodovitz: Founding Director of the Bay Conservation Development Commission and the California Coastal Commission,” an oral history conducted by Martin Meeker in 2015, Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley.