California Coastal Commission episode reignites fight
February 12, 2016
OPINION by STEVEN T. JONES
I was struck by two things this week while witnessing the firing of the director of the California Coastal Commission: Dr. Charles Lester’s ouster should outrage all
Californians who care about protecting our coast, and the fight to protect our beaches and ocean-side cliffs is about to get as heated as it has ever been over the past 40 years.
Thousands of Californians rose up to protect our beloved coastline, reaffirming widespread support for the 40-year-old Coastal Act and the commission it created to ensure public access and guard against over development. The Coastal Commission spent an entire day listening to this unanimous plea from the public – and then it fired Lester anyway.
It was a stunning, disheartening moment for the hundreds of us who traveled to Morro Bay from throughout this 1,000-mile coastline to attend the hearing, and the thousands of other Californians who had written letters of support for Lester and his independence and professionalism. But the broad-based movement triggered by Lester’s ouster remains resolute. In fact, we’re more galvanized than ever against the exploitation of our coastline. This isn’t over.
Like everyone who was still there on Wednesday night, 12 hours after the hearing began, I found it hard to believe the commissioners actually voted 7-5 to fire Lester – after every piece of testimony supported him and every major California newspaper editorialized on his behalf, blasting this disingenuous attack by coastal development interests. We still don’t know exactly why these commissioners did it because they refused to deliberate in open session, something that most public testimony and five of the commissioners demanded.
But when the vote tally was reported, it was clear that this was about development of the world’s most valuable stretch of real estate, California’s coastline.
Commissioner Martha McClure and others with the most pro-development voting records said this was about Lester’s management style, their communications problems with his staff, application processing delays, or diversity, all expressed in vague terms. McClure said she was legally barred by personnel rules from explaining her real reasons – something the commission’s legal counsel then refuted, reminding the commission that Lester had requested this hearing and waived his privacy rights – but that it had nothing to do with development. Nothing.
When the commission emerged from an hour-long closed session to announce that Lester was fired, six of those votes were the most pro-development half of the commission, including all four appointees of Gov. Jerry Brown. And the seventh vote, Robert Uranga, wasn’t much better, with a record evenly split between pro- and anti-conservation votes (according to a conservation voting chart that had been derided by the pro-development commissioners, but which proved a prescient predictor of the final vote).
So where do we go from here? While many shed tears and called this a demoralizing setback for coastal protection, this issue has awakened Californians to the imminent threat of reckless coastal over development and habitat degradation. Suddenly, coastal protection is on the public agenda with broad, passionate support not seen since the 1970s, when audacious development proposals and the walling off of beach access by wealthy property owners triggered passage of the Coastal Act.
There is a vibrant movement now underway to restore the promise of the Coastal Act, and our first demand is that Gov. Brown reaffirm the importance of an independent Coastal Commission and reassess whether his appointees are representing California well.
Firing Lester in the face of unanimous public opposition has damaged their credibility and badly eroded our confidence in their ability to choose a successor that we can trust. Their lack of faith in the commission’s professional staff undermines our faith in their intentions and integrity.
Let’s stay engaged with this struggle and turn this frustrating defeat into a victory for all Californians by ensuring that our coastline remains protected for generations to come.
Steven T. Jones is a media specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity and longtime California journalist.