A major political storm encircling one of California’s most loved and loathed state agencies is coming to Morro Bay.
On Feb. 10 at the Morro Bay Community Center Auditorium, the California Coastal Commission (CCC) will consider dismissing Executive Director Charles Lester. While the move is said to be prompted by ongoing personnel issues, many people familiar with the commission suspect that the underlying current is a political maneuver to shake up a body that isn’t afraid to show its teeth when embroiled in high-profile and high-dollar land use battles.
In recent weeks, Lester has received support from several environmental and conservation groups; a long list of former commissioners, including Assemblymember Katcho Achadjian; and a handful of state legislators, including state Sen. Bill Monning.
Because of the personnel nature, it’s likely that any relevant documents and deliberations will be kept private, leaving only public comment and an after-the-fact bare bones report accessible to the public.
That secrecy has only inflamed the worries of those closely watching, said Gordon Hensely with San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper and a board member of the California Coastkeeper, a water and environmental quality watchdog network. Hensley wonders where specific performance or leadership issues end and where the ever-present political tension linked to powerful interests begins.
“We want to know both sides of the story,” he said. “If it’s just a personal style issue, does this really rise to a firing discussion?”
Since its creation in the 1970s, the commission’s mission has been to protect coastal access and to ensure that projects proposed in the coastal zone are done in a way that would preserve resources along California’s 1,100-mile coastline. Its sphere of influence extends into several hot arenas, including coastal development and property rights, energy production, agriculture, wastewater, water, and habitat and open space conservation.
That includes integral roles in local projects like the BeachWalk Hotel and the land use and accessibility battle over Ontario Ridge, and utility and public works projects like Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, Morro Bay’s waste water treatment plant, the Los Osos sewer, Cambria’s Sustainable Water Facility, and the removal of dead and dying Monterey pine trees in Cambria.
The commission may also play a role in the controversial Phillips 66 rail spur extension project at the Santa Maria Refinery.
The body’s permitting authority can put it at odds with developers across California. Dave Watson, a Pismo Beach-based land use consultant, said that it’s a mix of the nitty gritty and political battles.
“Unfortunately, [the latter] tends to dominate the headlines rather than the difficult work that they do,” Watson said. “Coastal planning is so controversial; in some respects you’re always going to upset somebody.”
By design, staff operates independently from the voting body, to insulate staff decisions from the high-pressure politics that often come with coastal development.
“The public supports the commission not because of the decisions they make, but because when the commission goes into the hearing room, they know they have a chance,” said Sara Wan, a commissioner from 1996 to 2011 and Southern California conservationist.
Staff prepares reports and gives recommendations that are reviewed by the commissioners, often serving as checks and balances to local governments, which may be more sensitive to political whims in how they direct staff and make final decisions.
All 12 voting members are appointed: four by the governor, four by the Senate Rules Committee, and four by the Assembly speaker. The governor’s picks can be appointed or removed at will.
The relationship between the commission’s voting members and the executive director has sometimes been contentious. Lester’s predecessor and longtime executive director, Peter Douglas, survived several firing attempts, including one high-profile battle in 1996. Many say those attempts often originated from the then-governor, mobilized through the governor’s appointees.
Lester, a longtime staff member, took the post in 2011 after unanimous approval from the commission, following Douglas’ decision to retire after a cancer diagnosis. Douglas passed away in 2012.
Many familiar with the situation suspect the governor might be involved now also.
“Under my years, I haven’t found a governor, whether he was Democrat or Republican, that was happy with the commission, because it isn’t under the control of the governor,” Wan said.
Evan Westrup, a spokesperson for Gov. Jerry Brown, underscored that only four of the 12 appointees were Brown’s picks, however, and told New Times in an email that the governor does not have a position on the matter.
“This is a personnel matter—initiated without any involvement from our office—for the Coastal Commission to decide,” Westrup wrote.
Commissioner Erik Howell, a Pismo Beach City Councilmember appointed by Brown in February 2014, declined to comment, citing the issue’s personnel nature.
Pismo Beach land consultant Watson said Lester’s always been fair-minded and professional. Though he doesn’t know the current specifics, he’s optimistic that the process will work itself out.
Hensley, however, isn’t so optimistic, especially becuase of the limited information.
“It’s really kind of a fear of the unknown, and a concern or distrust that the politics make it wild,” Hensley said.
Contact Staff Writer Jono Kinkade at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay