Charles Lester (photo: California Coastal Commission)
By Nick Cahill, Courthouse News Service
MORRO BAY, Calif. (CN) - Ignoring pleas from a host of California's most powerful lawmakers and conservationists, the California Coastal Commission ousted its popular executive director late Wednesday. Environmentalists called it a major defeat: a kowtowing to developers.
After more than 10 hours of public comment and deliberation, the Coastal Commission voted 7-5 to remove Charles Lester as executive director, citing problems with communication and diversity.
Despite a decidedly pro-Lester crowd - not a single organization spoke in support of the firing - commissioners removed Lester in a private vote without discussing the results with the crowd that spent nearly 12 hours in a cramped auditorium.
In front of a standing-room-only crowd in the Central Coast community of Morro Bay, Lester said he was disappointed by the commission's decision.
"It's been a privilege to serve the commission for the past four and one-half years. If there is a silver lining, I've been energized by all the people who came together on this," Lester said dejectedly.
In the weeks before the Wednesday vote, critics accused commission members of being "wined and dined" by developers who want to replace Lester with a more pro-development director.
More than 150 commission staff members, 18 state lawmakers and 35 former commissioners unsuccessfully petitioned the commission to retain Lester.
Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, who appointed four of the commissioners, apologized to Californians in a tweet, saying she "thought my appointees would be better stewards of the coast."
Two of Atkins' appointees voted to fire Lester: Mark Vargas and Olga Diaz, voting as an alternate for Gregory Cox.
In a letter submitted before the vote, Atkins warned the commission to consider the consequences of removing the executive director who was elected unanimously in 2011.
"Your actions will shape how the public remembers your service[:] as one who supports and enforces the Coastal Act, or as one who has pulled the strings that could lead to its unraveling," Atkins wrote.
Also testifying in support of Lester were representatives for other coastal district lawmakers, including state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara; and Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Carpinteria.
More than 250 people testified in Lester's favor, calling him a "champion of public beach access" and a "devout protector of the coast." Prominent environmentalist groups, including the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, chided the commission for even considering firing Lester.
"We have seen no evidence that would in any way justify his dismissal," said David Grubb of the Sierra Club of California. "On the contrary, we have seen continuous improvement at the commission under his tenure."
The Sierra Club told Courthouse News that the commission's decision abandoned the public interest and that it has "instead chosen to vote in line with developers and real estate lobbyists."
The Coastal Commission, created by voters in 1972, is responsible for enforcing the Coastal Act and protecting public access to the state's famous coastline. California's beaches are a major tourist attraction and large patches of its coastline remain undeveloped.
It was the first time in the commission's 44-year history that it removed its executive director.
When the commission announced its proposal to remove Lester three weeks ago, environmentalists immediately cried foul. They said certain commissioners were carrying out a coup on behalf of developers eager to build million-dollar homes on California's most beloved cliffs and beaches.
The commission is considering a proposal known as Banning Ranch that would build 1,400 homes and a resort near Newport Beach.
On Wednesday, commission members rejected the notion they were influenced by lobbyists, saying the vote was about communication issues with Lester.
Commissioner Dayna Bochco said commissioners were not allowed to talk to the press about the proposal and that, the "press did a horrible job," in the past three weeks.
"We were not allowed to speak. They knew we weren't allowed to speak. We had our public relations person and our lawyer telling them we can't speak," Bochco said.
Bochco said commission members are under "incredible restrictions" among themselves and that she was not always included in Lester's staff's decisions.
Commissioner Effie Turnbull-Sanders agreed about the communication problems and said the commission should have a more diverse representation of ethnicities. She assured the crowd that the removal was not inspired by developers, and said the commission was not "trying to pave over the coast."
Several commissioners complained they were not involved in the executive director's decisions and had little conversation with Lester's staff.
As a whole, the commission expressed frustration with the press's "conspiracy" allegations: that it was kicking out Lester for a more development-friendly director.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who helped create the original Coastal Act, declined to comment on the dispute, but all four of his appointees to the commission voted to remove Lester.
During the extended hearing, Lester was praised for his accomplishments as leader of the commission, specifically his efforts to prepare California for rising sea levels.
Commissioner Mary Shallenberger cited Lester's leadership during the economic recession and his creation of a successful strategic plan.
Lester reiterated that the future of California's majestic coastline is in jeopardy due to climate change and an obsessive urge to develop public land.
"Many of our beloved beaches could be lost - squeezed out between the rising seas and shoreline development," he said.
Sierra Club California Director Kathryn Phillips said it's time for the Legislature to investigate the cushy relationship between real estate lobbyists and the commission.
"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 said in a statement.