When California coastal commissioners were preparing to fire Executive Director Charles Lester at their Feb. 10 meeting in Morro Bay, they sounded a recurring theme: “We’re not evil.” They insisted they weren’t firing Lester to send a signal of greased rails for future development projects; they had not gotten any phone calls from lobbyists about this; there’s a $10 limit on gifts they can accept; they weren’t developer hacks; the media accounts of the likely reasons behind the firing were just wrong and mean, as were all those damn environmentalists, and so on.
Commissioner Mark Vargas asserted that such claims damaged the commission’s reputation—an odd pronouncement coming from one of the architects of the worst damage done to the Coastal Commission’s reputation in its four decades of existence, while he was in the midst of doing the damage. (The concerned commissioner subsequently busied himself with slamming the Surfrider Foundation as a racist organization via his Twitter feed, tweeting from the dais while the commission was in session.)
It reminded me of what David Foster Wallace said at his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address, describing the human condition: These two young fish are swimming along in the ocean. They encounter an older fish swimming the other way who calls out, “Enjoy the water!” The two young fish swim on a little farther, then one of them turns to the other and says, “What’s water?”
Here’s the most charitable thing I can say about most of the commissioners who voted to fire Lester: They were probably young fish.
Longtime coastal advocates—people who live and breathe the Coastal Act —know the score. They understand the history of the commission, Sacramento power politics, and the currents of wealth and influence that have been brought to bear in the effort to undermine the Coastal Act’s policies safeguarding resources and public access since the day it became law. They recognize the fiction behind the stated reasons for Lester’s ouster: insufficient agency diversity, poor “communication,” inadequate attention paid to commissioners. It begs the question: If this wasn’t related to the development community’s longstanding antipathy toward the Coastal Management Program, then what was it? Because it certainly wasn’t about the weak reasons stated.
The perennial campaign to get the commission’s executive director fired, which began with Lester’s predecessor and has now succeeded, is all of a piece. It has always looked like a duck, walked like a duck, and quacked like a duck—a fixture of the state’s aquatic political environment of money and power—but making that identification seemed to be beyond the young fish who occupy most of the seats on the current commission.
Commissioner Wendy Mitchell is not a young fish. She knows exactly what she’s swimming in, and she did the terraforming to create the environment for Lester’s firing. A midnight appointment by Gov. Schwarzenegger, Mitchell is a close friend of developer uber-lobbyist Susan McCabe, who pulled the strings to get Mitchell appointed. McCabe is said to refer to Mitchell as “my commissioner.” Mitchell’s voting record and years-long campaign of relentless attacks on commission staff in general and on Dr. Lester in particular are a matter of public record.
The commissioners had every chance to do the right thing. A considerable amount of antidote to Mitchell’s handiwork was at hand in the lead up to their Feb. 10 meeting. They could have read the 14,000 written comments they received on Lester’s proposed dismissal (four in favor, all others opposed); listened to 253 members of the public testifying against the dismissal, with not a soul speaking in favor; heeded the words of 36 former coastal commissioners—including two former commission chairs—former colleagues of Lester who had worked with him for decades, 16 state legislators, 10 members of Congress, and 153 members of the commission’s current staff.
They also could have listened to Dr. Lester, a consummate professional to the end, who laid out a roadmap for resolving such general administrative concerns as commissioners had shared previously—all easily fixable if resolving those concerns was what they really wanted.
It wasn’t. What they really wanted was to fire him. Falsely claiming, against the advice of their senior legal counsel, that they could not deliberate in public, the commission adjourned to executive session, wherein Olga Diaz, Erik Howell, Wendy Mitchell, Effie Turnbull-Sanders, Mark Vargas, Martha McClure, and Roberto Uranga voted to fire Lester behind closed doors, and never said why. (Steve Kinsey, who made it clear in remarks to the press and at the hearing that he wanted to fire Lester, voted “no”—the prerogative of the chair, who always votes last, if he knows there are enough votes for an unpopular measure to pass and he wants to record a “safe” vote and duck responsibility.) After the vote to fire Lester, Kinsey told the press that the commission now must work on rebuilding public trust, which is the kind of thing you say after you’ve discovered a bad situation and taken steps to fix it, not after you’ve just created a bad situation and lost the public trust as a result.
They want us to know they’re not evil. Neither is an 8-year-old with a jackhammer in the Sistine Chapel, but you still wouldn’t want him in there if you have any regard for Florentine art. Since they were appointed, the commissioners who just fired their executive director despite his spectacular record of leadership and achievement have demonstrated a disastrously steep learning curve.
They have shown on numerous occasions that they don’t understand why the Coastal Act was created or how the Coastal Commission is supposed to work. They don’t understand why micromanagement is a bad idea or why staff analysis of proposed projects should be done by staff, in a process separate from the subsequent deliberations of commissioners. At the Feb. 10 hearing, several of them claimed not to know whether the commission has a budget because they’ve never been able to review it. (It does and they can.) Ignoring overwhelming public protest, they have just shown that they don’t understand that they are supposed to serve the public interest.
And by their own testimony, they don’t know what water is, and that they are in it.
Andrew Christie is the director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Send comments via the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.