Despite a few hot weeks of intense scrutiny from environmentalists, conservationists, and general lovers of the coast, the California Coastal Commission canned Executive Director Charles Lester.
The 7-5 closed session vote capped off an all-day meeting on Feb. 10 in Morro Bay. During that meeting, the 12-member commission heard hours of testimony from hundreds of Lester’s supporters; all but one speaker asked the commission to step back and not fire Lester.
The Coastal Commission was created in the 1970s to protect and preserve California’s prized 1,100-mile coastline. By design, the staff operates independently from the 12-member board of appointed commissioners. That offers insulation between staff and political pressure from high-powered and high-dollar projects proposed along the coast.
While the specific details remain a mystery, some commissioners referenced frustrations with Lester and his staff over communication, at-times lethargic permit processing, and a lack of diversity among the staff and their approach. Supporters—including environmentalists and state and local elected officials—on the other hand, suggested those reasons were a cover for a deeper, politically driven move to shake up the commission and pull staff’s regulatory teeth.
In his opening statements, Lester—a longtime Coastal Commission staff member who took the helm in 2011—listed several accomplishments that were achieved under his watch. While acknowledging some problems among the organization, he said those could be worked out.
“I believe that I am the right person to be directing the commission on the path forward,” he said. “We must keep the role of staff making the recommendations, and the commission deciding on the recommendations, at arm’s length.”
Impassioned pleas during public comment expressed concerns that Lester’s ouster would weaken the commission and, as one attorney said, put out a sign “that the coast is open season for developers.” Others argued that the commission and staff should settle their differences, because Lester was the best man for the job.
“[Lester’s] continued presence keeps in place consistency, continuity, and most importantly, a sense of institutional memory,” said David Weisman, outreach coordinator for the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, a ratepayer watchdog group focused on Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant.
Several commissioners, however, saw things differently. During deliberations, commissioners who spoke on either side tiptoed around what their issues were and said they weren’t allowed to elaborate because the issue was a confidential personnel matter. Some praised Lester, some chided the media for suggesting that the move was a “coup” orchestrated by Gov. Jerry Brown, and others took offense at the notion that developers and lobbyists influenced them. Rather, they said, there were serious management issues that needed to be resolved.
“Of course we want to protect the coast; it has nothing to do with development,” said Coastal Commissioner Erik Howell, also a Pismo Beach City Council member. Howell, who was appointed by the governor in 2014, said that Brown had nothing to do with this.
“We spent dozens of hours in closed session with [Lester] and with the commission talking about these issues,” Howell told New Times.
“It is a personnel issue action. It really is all about the way he was performing as a manager,” he said. “We need an executive director that will protect the coast, but also work well with the commission.”
After the final decision was announced, Lester, flanked by several members of his staff, thanked the audience while receiving a long standing ovation.
“This is a spontaneous expression of the commitment to the coast of California, and we should all be proud of that,” he said.
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay