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Coastal Commission executive director under fire

The California coast along Redwood National Park, north Humboldt County, (Photo: Don Forthuber, redwoods.info)

A move to oust the executive director of the California Coastal Commission is under way, an effort that marks the most significant attempt against the commission’s ranking administrator in two decades.

Commission Chair Steve Kinsey wrote a letter to Executive Director Charles Lester, saying the 12-member panel “will consider whether to dismiss you” at the commission’s February meeting.

Kinsey’s Jan. 14 letter, reviewed by Capitol Weekly, emerged Tuesday after days of intense wrangling at the powerful agency.

A statement was posted Tuesday evening on the commission’s web site for the Feb. 10-12 meeting, saying that “two items regarding the executive director have been set for public hearing and/or closed session (and) the employment status of the executive director … and if necessary, consideration of the appointment of an interim executive director … ”

There appeared to be a division between environmentalists and conservationists on one hand, who generally support Lester, and pro-development forces on the other.

Lester invoked his right to a public hearing at the February meeting before the commission goes into an executive session to consider his dismissal, sources said. The commission staff was briefed late Tuesday morning about the pending action.

State law “provides all state employees with the option of a public hearing prior to an agency’s consideration of dismissal,” commission spokesperson Noaki Schwartz wrote in an email. “There will be more information about the public hearing process in the coming weeks. Public remarks by the director may be given at the hearing.”

Several people with knowledge of the commission’s inner workings said the action reflected a long-standing division between environmentalists and conservationists on one hand, who generally support Lester, and pro-development forces on the other.

Support for removing Lester apparently comes from several commissioners, including several appointees of the governor, according to a variety of sources.

The executive staff of the commission and several commissioners were unavailable to comment on the issue.

Environmentalists said the friction between environmental and development forces has been constant.

“We’re up against a lot of developers with deep pockets,” said Stefanie Sekich-Quinn, a Lester supporter who monitors the Coastal Commission for the Surfrider Foundation.

A source familiar with development issues before the commission said unhappiness with Lester stemmed more from management issues and project delays than ideology.

Lester, a member of the commission’s staff since 1997, became executive director in 2011 to succeed Peter Douglas, who had left because of illness. Douglas, the iconic leader of the commission’s staff for nearly three decades, died in 2012. Lester was a close associate of Douglas.

The Coastal Commission is charged with protecting some 1,100 miles of California’s coast. It frequently is involved in controversial, high-profile issues that pit the commission against wealthy celebrities, major developers and property-rights activists.

Lester generally is viewed as an environmental ally, although he is not seen as aggressive an advocate as Douglas, a former legislative staffer well versed in the Capitol’s political wars.

The gubernatorial appointees on the commission include Wendy Mitchell and Effie Turnbull Sanders of Los Angeles, Erik Howell of Pismo Beach and Martha McClure of Crescent City.

If all 12 of the commission’s voting members attend the February meeting, it would take seven votes to oust Lester. If 11 members are present, his firing would require six votes.

That action, if taken, may occur in public or behind closed doors, but in any event, the commission’s vote would be announced publicly afterward.

The voting commissioners are appointed, four each, by the governor, the Assembly speaker and the Senate Rules Committee. The commission also has four nonvoting members. The Coastal Commission’s roster is available here.

Douglas was the target of a failed ouster attempt in the mid-1990s engineered by former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, then-Speaker Curt Pringle, a Republican, and others. Douglas, who argued that business and developer interests were trying to take over the board’s staff, survived the coup after environmentalists and conservationists aggressively complained.

Eds’ Note: Clarifies that vote on dismissal can also occur in public, as well as in private, 13th graf, and CORRECTS the year of Lester’s appointment as executive director to 2011, not 2012, in 18th graf.

 


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