October 22, 2018

Coastal Commission—Exec. Director’s Firing Fuels a Firestorm of Controversy

 

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PHOTO BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN 2015

Coastal Commission—Exec. Director’s Firing Fuels a Firestorm of Controversy

Charles Lester, the Executive Director of the Commission for 20 years, at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Carbon Beach West beach access way in Malibu, July 9, 2015.

On February 10, for the first time in its 44-year history, the California Coastal Commission dismissed its executive director. The decision left the environmental community reeling and has generated a firestorm of controversy.

Charles Lester spent 20 years on the staff of the coastal agency. In 2011, he was chosen to replace former executive director and coastal access and preservation activist Peter Douglas, who resigned shortly before his death from cancer in 2012.

Like Douglas, Lester was widely regarded as a coastal preservation and access advocate, although his approach was less militant than that of his predecessor.

The charismatic and fiery Douglas, credited as the principal author of Proposition 20, the Coastal Act of 1972 that created the Coastal Commission, survived a similar removal attempt in 1996, during Governor Pete Wilson’s administration. In that instance, environmentalists rallied and development interests backed down.

Like Douglas, Lester was given the choice of simply resigning, but opted instead for a public hearing. However, the commission chose to make their decision in closed session following the public portion of the meeting.

The news that the commission was considering dismissing Lester once again galvanized the environmental community. Although the official reason given for the hearing was management issues, allegations of developer influence rapidly materialized, fueled by the revelation that the four commissioners seeking Lester’s removal were those with the worst environmental voting records and allegedly the closest ties with development interests.

Newspapers published editorials. More than 150 environmental organizations, ranging from the Audubon Society to the Sierra Club, wrote in support of Lester. The Commission reportedly received more than 20,000 e-mails and letters before the hearing, and only four of those favored dismissing Lester.

The executive director’s supporters included 150 Coastal Commission staff members and 35 former commissioners.

The meeting was moved to a larger venue, but there still wasn’t room for all of the executive director’s supporters. On the day of the hearing, hundreds of activists packed the auditorium. Representatives from dozens of elected officials joined environmentalists from all over California at the podium for six hours of public comment during the 11-hour hearing at the Morro Bay Community Center Auditorium. Not one public speaker supported Lester’s removal.

The marathon meeting ended with a vote of seven to five to remove Lester, taken in closed session. The commission took less than 15 minutes to reach their decision.

The commissioners left immediately after the vote, postponing the selection of an interim executive director.

Commission Chair Steve Kinsey, Vice Chair Dayna Bochco, Mary Luevano, Carole Groom and Mary Shallenberger supported Lester.

Commissioners Erik Howell, Wendy Mitchell, Effie Turnbull-Sanders, Mark Vargas, Martha McClure, Roberto Uranga and Olga Diaz, an alternate for Commissioner Gregory Cox, voted to fire Lester. The dismissal was immediate. Senior Deputy Director Jack Ainsworth will fill in until the CCC decides on a replacement.

The executive director, however, may not be the only one who is ultimately replaced because there are numerous calls for a performance review of the commissioners responsible for Lester’s removal.

The 12 voting members of the CCC are appointed, four each, by the Governor, the Senate Rules Committee and the Speaker of the Assembly. The commissioners, selected by the Senate and Assembly, serve a set, four-year term. The governor’s four appointees serve at the governor’s pleasure and can be replaced at any time. These four appointees reportedly originated the discussion on Lester’s removal. Six of the voting members are “public members” and six are locally elected officials from the coastal districts.

Following the commission vote on Lester, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins tweeted, “Let me apologize to the public. I truly thought my appointees would be better stewards of the coast.”

She did not respond to subsequent tweets calling for the removal of Mark Vargas and Gregory Cox (represented by his alternate, Olga Dias).

A Los Angeles Times article points to the development connections of Governor Brown appointee Wendy Mitchell, a public relations consultant, and Assembly Speaker appointee Mark Vargas, president of a development consulting firm.

According to the Times article, Mitchell’s clients have included PG&E and Cadiz Inc.—a company that has been in the news for a plan to tap ancient non-renewable water supplies under the Mojave Desert to sell to Southern California water agencies.

Vargas raised eyebrows earlier this year when he met with U2 musician David Evans in Dublin prior to the Commission approving Evan’s five-house subdivision in the Santa Monica Mountains. The Sierra Club recently sued the CCC over that approval.

A Moveon.org petition started by activist Joey Racano is requesting that Governor Jerry Brown replace his appointees.

“This unprecedented power grab was supported by all four of your appointees,” Racano wrote. “We, the undersigned demand that you remove them immediately in order to restore the public trust in the integrity of our California Coastal Commission.”

Within days of the post, the petition had received more than a thousand signatures.

Rather than singling out the commissioners who pushed for the removal of Lester, the editorial board of the Sacramento Bee is calling for “a clean slate.”

A February 11 editorial states, “The commissioners who instigated this uproar must go.” The editorial concludes: “If those who pushed hardest for Lester to go really were doing Brown’s wet work—as was implied by his silence—fine. Their work is done now. If not, even more reason to clean the slate on all sides and move on.”

Los Angeles County Third District Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, an outspoken critic of the Coastal Commission’s decision, stated on her blog: “Each appointment to our coastline’s last line of defense is critical. If you are so inclined, you can call the commissioners and make your voice heard,” Kuehl wrote. “This is a real loss for our coast and for those of us who love it and have worked hard to protect it.

“There was no question that Charles Lester has provided the Commission with strong leadership and environmental stewardship during his tenure. It’s sadly ironic that his removal undermines the stability and functioning of the very body charged with protecting and enhancing California’s coast and ocean for generations to come,” said Kuehl.

Other activists are calling for an investigation into the Commission’s relationship with lobbyists.

Kathryn Phillips, Director of Sierra Club California, issued the following statement:

"It's time for the legislature to review the influence of lobbyists and the conflict-of-interest requirements for commissioners. Protecting the coast and ensuring coastal access to all Californians is too important to leave to the influence of real estate development and its allies on the commission.”

Phillips concluded: “The Coastal Commission today has failed the public and the public interest. Rather than vote on Director Lester's clear record of performance with the Coastal Commission, it has, instead, chosen to vote in line with developers and real estate lobbyists who have pounded a steady drumbeat of complaint against Lester designed to weaken the Coastal Commission staff's ability to implement the California Coastal Act.”

Several commissioners attempted to place the blame for the firestorm of controversy on the media.

“The press did a horrible job,” Commission Vice Chair Dayna Bochco said, during commissioner comments.

“Disgrace isn't a strong enough word to describe the Coastal Commission meeting,” fired back Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. “They accused the media of building a bogus narrative about why Lester’s job was in jeopardy, falsely insisting they were not at liberty to discuss their complaints about his performance in public,” Lopez wrote. “And they spoke of their commitment to accountability and transparency, then refused to conduct their business in public, retreated into privacy, papered over the window and dropped the guillotine on Lester in a 7-5 vote.”

Longtime local resident and former commissioner Sara Wan described the conflict as a no-holds-barred war. “If you care about the coast you need to join in this battle,” she told the Topanga Messenger in a phone interview before the hearing. “It’s about turning control of the coast over to development interests,” she said.

Observers say that one certain outcome of the decision to replace Lester will be closer scrutiny of the agency that is responsible for protecting more than 1,000 miles of the most scenic and valuable property in the world, and enforcing the Coastal Act, which is intended to ensure environmental protection and public access to the California Coast.

“If the whole world isn’t watching, it should be,” Steve Lopez wrote. “People are getting fed up with the lack of transparency in the way the Commission does business.”

Speaking for the first time since the meeting, Lester told the Los Angeles Times that “This commission seems to be more interested in and receptive to the concerns of the development community as a general rule.”

“There is less focus on how we can make decisions to implement the Coastal Act. That's different than saying it's development versus environment,” he said. “It’s more nuanced. But I think it remains to be seen how it will unfold.”