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Coastal Commission fires executive director

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

MORRO BAY, Calif. – The California Coastal Commission fired Executive Director Charles Lester late Wednesday, after several commissioners complained about a lack of communication from Lester and the staff.

The action, a public 7-5 vote by the 12-member commission, followed a discussion behind closed doors and came after  an all-day public hearing at which hundreds of people lauded Lester and urged the commission to retain him.

Shortly before 8 p.m., after nearly seven hours of public testimony, the commission voted 9-3 to take the discussion behind closed doors.

“Obviously, I’m disappointed,” Lester said moments after the vote. “Regardless of the outcome, this is a real testament and it’s a celebration of the vitality of the California coastal program to all Californians. I am so energized by all the people who came together for this.”

Members of the public crowded into the Morro Bay hearing room to back the embattled Lester, a conservationist lawyer and protégé of the late Peter Douglas, the commission’s iconic, long-term director who died in 2012. Lester has served as executive director for more than four years.

Lester, who had demanded a public hearing to confront his opponents on the commission, had been informed in a Jan. 19 letter by Commission Chair Steve Kinsey that commissioners planned to consider his firing at the panel’s Feb. 1o meeting.

“At its core, the commission is a social justice program,” Lester earlier told the panel. He defended his record on sea-level rise and climate change, as well as issues of public access to the 1,100 miles of coastline under the commission’s jurisdiction. He said that over the last two and a half years, he has made progress on 80 percent of the goals in the agency’s five-year strategic plan.

Shortly before 8 p.m., after nearly seven hours of public testimony, the commission voted 9-3 to take the discussion behind closed doors.

The seven votes to dismiss Lester came from Commissioners Olga Diaz, Mark Vargas, Roberto Uranga,Wendy Mitchell, Erik Howell, Martha McClure and Effie Turnbull-Sanders. The latter three are appointees of Gov. Brown, Mitchell was appointed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Uranga by the Senate Rules Committee and Vargas and Diaz by a former Assembly speaker.

Supporting Lester were Commissioners Carole Groom, Mary Luevano, Mary Shallenberger, Dayna Bochco and Chairman Steve Kinsey. The last three are appointees of the Senate Rules Committee, while Luevano and Groom are speakership appointments.

“It’s not fair to characterize us as a bunch of developer hacks,” said Commissioner Dayna Bochco

Before the hearing even began, billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer urged at a news conference that Lester be retained, and scores of Lester’s supporters testified on the executive director’s behalf during the day. Lester’s backers said commissioners sympathetic to developers were hoping to push Lester out.

“[This hearing] is not about Charles’ performance,” Stefanie Sekich-Quinn of the Surfrider Foundation told commissioners. “It’s about yours.”

But some commissioners were skeptical – and angry at being called anti-environmentalist.

“It’s not fair to characterize us as a bunch of developer hacks,” said Commissioner Dayna Bochco, who complained about the lack of communication from Lester on important projects. “We’re having difficulty doing our jobs because we didn’t feel we were getting information.”

However, she added, she supported efforts to retain Lester.

“I encourage everyone to go outside and scream a little bit,” Kinsey said.

Commissioner Mark Vargas agreed in part, saying that “the myth of the pro-development coup was propagated without a shred of evidence.” Nor, he said, had he been “wined and dined by lobbyists” in a “binary, good-versus-evil campaign” as contended by environmentalists seeking to block Lester’s ouster.

Some commissioners also noted that there were privacy rules that prevented them from publicly discussing their views about Lester. Commissioner Martha McClure asked for a closed-door hearing so they could discuss Lester’s potential termination in greater detail and “ask Charles some of those confidential questions … that have not been answered.”

Local officials said at least 682 people, many of them urged by environmentalists to attend the event, jammed the hearing room and others were turned away. The event had been transferred to a larger venue after it was clear that the original setting, which had a 150-person capacity, would be inadequate for the hearing.

During the day, the hours-long hearing became crowded and difficult to manage.

“I encourage everyone to go outside and scream a little bit,” Kinsey said before the lunch break.


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