California Coastal Commission episode reignites fight

February 12, 2016
Steven T. Jones

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.

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When staff has there own agenda and is not unbiased that creates a situation that the commission can’t vote on facts it creates a situation that is biased and wrong. Staff needs to present the factual truth, that is not biased. This type of firing should happen on many levels.

With a picture like that, how can we take anything you say seriously? Really dude, you couldn’t have come up with something better?

Had the commission not overstepped it’s bounds with respect to the original intent of the Coastal Act by violating the rights of private property owners, this never would have happened. Personal agenda’s cannot and should not trump the law.

The Coastal Commission giveth…and the Coastal Commission taketh away.

Read the comments from the Board with objective eyes. They were saying that he was a bad manager. For a huge organization like the Coastal Commission, that is a totally devastating charge. He wields power far superior to many large companies because he can micro-manage things to death. In a large corporation he would answer to stockholders who want return for their money. In this case his “stakeholders” who agree with his vision are people who do not want anything to happen on the coast unless it is to get rid of things or stop new things from happening.

The Board said they were only receiving their Financial information the night before the meetings. Again-that is a disaster when you are the size of the Coastal Commission. With a $20M+ budget and such an extreme amount of power, that person should have been fired years ago. It is over 6 years of this kind of thing and his response was that these things can be “fixed”.

I have worked for Boards of Directors and if my staff provided them budgets the night before a meeting, I would not have been around for too many of those meetings. Again it shows that he was an incompetent CEO.

Unfortunately that impacts so many people who are trying to do business or add a fence to their property.

No he does not make decisions but he is the gatekeeper. At this time it appears that he either kept the gate perpetually locked or rolled a big boulder in front of the gate and took a $200,000 salary to do that.

Another example of how politics is a rigged game. Money talks. Opposition walks (or is walked out).

The legal counsel only said they could talk about stuff that was out that day not everything including what was in his reviews, but keep spinning this. Just like most of what is being said about this, it’s low on facts and high on distortions to serve your own political agenda. Who appointed you? Who elected you? You’re a special interest too that doesn’t care for the property rights of the people who live on the coast and yes, we are not all “billionaires.” Some people just want to repair a staircase or repave their driveway, not build a hotel. You oppose them too.

The sad thing is, you’re just using this to advance your own special interest. You have no idea whether Lester was doing a good job and his bosses are allowed to review his performance. You’d be crying bloody murder if the director couldn’t be removed and a Republican ever appointed them.

“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”

That’s ridiculous… The coast in California is not in danger because someone lost their job. this is what is wrong with movements like this….The larger they get the more hysterical they become.

The only way these environmental non-profits stay in business and increase their revenues is by trying scare people. They aren’t operating out of the goodness of their hearts. They are in business to make money and they don’t mind stretching the truth to do it. Follow the money!

I agree. What’s more: there are still 12 environmentally-committed commissioners running an agency with no check-or-balances. The Commission will still protect the coast, as they are charged. They just won’t do it as Lester’s fiefdom.

The Commission has become too powerful, originally the idea was great but they have to much power. We need less government and more common sense.

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