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Reporter’s Notebook: A day at the Coastal Commission

Morro Rock. (Photo by Alex Matthews, Capitol Weekly.)

My head is spinning. I lay back on the picnic table in my Morro Beach state campsite, in a state of disbelief. It doesn’t feel like the last 24 hours happened. The fact that I’m experiencing déjà vu from the last time I slept on these campgrounds — about 17 years ago — doesn’t help the moment feel less surreal.

It’s Feb. 10 and I’ve slept just three hours in the last 48, but I’m wide awake. I got off my second job at 1 a.m. and awoke at 4:30 a.m. to make the trek down from San Francisco to Morro Bay in time for the Coastal Commission meeting. At 8 a.m., I was making good time down U.S. Highway 101 when one of my tires blew out near Paso Robles. 

I made it to the meeting 45 minutes late to find the commissioners in closed session. I took a minute to catch my breath, sip some coffee and take in my surroundings.

I was suddenly grateful for the terrifying tire blowout on the freeway — caffeine alone wouldn’t to keep me going for a game that was likely to go into sudden death overtime.

The crowds were about what I expected — reminiscent of the conservation activists who followed the coastal commission from my hometown of Encinitas in north San Diego County when I was a kid.

In 2008, I remember classmates and neighbors returning energized from the hours-long deliberations about the controversial Trestles toll road at a Coastal Commission hearing in Del Mar.

At the latest meeting, Executive Director Charles Lester, fighting for his job, delivered his opening remarks, and I watched the crowds cheer him on like a rock star. I realized with a sense of both nostalgia and dread that the energy in the room was similar to the contingent that had fought the toll road eight years earlier.

Alex

Reporter Alex Matthews, left, and cousin Katie Crow on a lunch break.

I was suddenly grateful for the terrifying tire blowout on the freeway — caffeine alone wouldn’t to keep me going for a game that was likely to go into sudden death overtime. The shot of adrenaline as I swerved down the 101 next to a semi truck was a blessing in disguise.

Team Lester dominated the first few periods. At halftime (the lunch break), my cousin, who was visiting from Colorado and caught a ride down just to see the coast, played team mom for the press, dropping off a lunch bag of carrots, pistachios, and cheese sticks.

As I watched Lester’s supporters munch on pizza under the Surfrider Foundation tent pitched outside the hearing room, I couldn’t help but feel that I was back in Encinitas at a snack break during a beach cleanup.

When Pam Slater-Price of San Diego noted the stunning turnout for a destination as difficult to reach as Morro Bay, my feelings of nostalgia suddenly became feelings of concern.

Commissioners and activists alike were talking about coastal access, particularly for lower income and minority communities, but those communities were conspicuously absent from the room. In fact, a great deal of the most controversial development issues that have come before the commission recently — U2 guitarist the Edge’s five Malibu mansions come to mind as a recent example — seem to be focused entirely on the development of beaches that were never really accessible to working class communities in the first place.

Before it was announced that Lester might be terminated, I interviewed Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina about the commission and Lester’s leadership role. Dedina said he was most concerned that the commission was so pre-occupied with development projects like the Edge’s, rather than finding new ways to connect communities that don’t have access to the state’s beaches.

Hours passed, and at times, the testimony felt infinite, each speaker blending into the next. My mother tuned in to the Cal Channel live stream briefly and texted me to tell me to smile, since I was sitting in the front row and looked exhausted.

I guzzled a doubleshot energy espresso drink from my bag and checked the screen–my eyes still had dark circles, but I looked a little more alert on the whole.

Finally, Commission Chairman Steve Kinsey, perhaps sensing my sleepiness, decided to expedite the process. Channelling Beyonce, he told activists to briefly state if they were for or against Lester’s retention and then move “to the left, to the left.”

Didn’t anyone ever tell him not to pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel? Even in the Age of Online, when ink is a dwindling quantity, it still counts for something.

Crowd1

A portion of the crowd in attendance at the Feb. 10 Coastal Commission hearing.

As a steady stream of team Lester stepped up to the podium, I watched the sun set over the coast through the doorway. As one of the younger activists, a boy of about five, was held up to the mic to voice his support for Lester, I wondered how many of the folks in line to speak might still be in utero. Kinsey rushed some speakers who attempted to filibuster, usually to no avail.

I quickly learned that Kinsey’s impatience was not to my benefit. He quipped as the commissioners concluded their remarks, largely criticizing the press for our coverage of the meeting, that they would go to closed session, to “punish the press.”

Didn’t anyone ever tell him not to pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel? Even in the Age of Online, when ink is a dwindling quantity, it still counts for something.

My cousin had returned from her day in Morro Bay, in time to catch the commissioners closing comments. She was surprised by the drama of the meeting, remarking that she expected it to be a much more dry affair. As a Lester activist filled her in on the situation, I took the free time to meet people with whom up until this point I’d only spoken with over the phone.

Mark Massara told me that those in the building — activists, staff members, and commissioners alike — were like “one big dysfunctional family.” As I looked around the room, watching surfers and suits catch up like old friends, do yoga, and pass time as if the Morro Bay Community Center was their own living room, I couldn’t help but agree.

I decided to make myself at home at well — I had dinner (more pistachios, cheese, and carrot sticks), sipped on a beer from my cooler, and jotted down a few of my thoughts.

When the commissioners returned from their closed session at 9 p.m.– about ten hours after I arrived — I somehow already could see the outcome from the looks on their faces. By just two votes, Lester was out. Tears were shed and insults hurled, as the offending commissioners were ushered out of the room.

We returned to our campsite. My cousin immediately pitched a tent and fell asleep. It had been a long day.

My cousin, who I think until this point had been mystified by my interest in writing about state agencies, said that she felt like she was watching a soap opera.

The final plot twist, Lester’s firing, had unfolded, so we returned to our campsite. My cousin immediately pitched a tent and fell asleep. It had been a long day.

I couldn’t curl up in bed just yet, so here I am, lying on a picnic table, sipping a whiskey and coke out of my coffee cup and turning the day’s events over and over again in my head.

Today isn’t the only moment churning around in my adrenaline-, caffeine- and alcohol-addled brain. I’m thinking about my last visit to Morro Bay with my family as an 8-year-old, resenting the fact that we had to drive hours up the coast to visit a beach just as nice as the ones a stone’s throw from our home in Encinitas.

I’m wondering how this meeting might have been different if it had been held in a time and location accessible to working class, minority, and inland communities. I’m wondering where this big dysfunctional family goes from here. Massara and Lester both remarked they had not seen the conservationist community so energized in years.

With the Coastal Commission adjusting its sails, it will be interesting to see whether this swell of support for the ousted director takes it in a new direction.

Ed’s Note: Alex Matthews, a former Capitol Weekly intern from UC Berkeley and a Peace Corps worker in Morocco, is a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly.

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