The state Coastal Commission, as expected, voted today to oust its own executive director over the objections of many past commissioners and environmental groups. The vote to get rid of Charles Lester was 7-5, taken in closed session even though the commission's lawyer said that step was not required by law, then announced to an audience that had come mostly to support Lester. The side opposed to Lester has been saying in recent months that it was unhappy with his management performance. His backers said the pressure for his ouster was coming from commissioners who wanted more leeway to approve development along the coast, and that notion has been advanced aggressively by leading environmental groups and LA Times columnist Steve Lopez, who has done a couple of columns now and who went to Morro Bay himself for the meeting.
After the vote, commission chair Steve Kinsey, who voted against the firing, "called it a difficult decision that 'revolved around leadership and not around an issue of greater flexibility for development' along the coast," per the LA Times news story. At least two other commissioners, both of whom voted to fire Lester, also said the line of attack by Lester supporters that he was the victim of pro-development pressure was off-base.
"We need to set the record straight. There was no coup by developer interests," [said commissioner Mark Vargas.]
“But this is like trying to convince people that the fluoride in their water was not a communist plot,” Vargas said.
Vice chair [Dayna] Bochco said commissioners have had problems getting information from the commission’s staff, had not been included in agency processes and were often left in the dark about how staff had come to conclusions related to projects.
“I would like to discuss with the press the reasons we are here," Bochco said. "It is not about developers and their consultants. We have been terribly mischaracterized as developer hacks.”
Lester said after the vote that the commissioners only mentioned organizational issues that he thought could be resolved. "Maybe they just thought I was too independent,” Lester said. His supporters at the meeting included some coastal developers who praised his work. Heal the Bay posted a statement of disappointment about Lester's firing. Excerpt:
Heal the Bay is discouraged and disappointed by the decision made by the Coastal Commission today to terminate Dr. Charles Lester as its Executive Director. His firing is representative of a larger issue about the future of California’s coastline. The vote raises the question of what the Coastal Commission’s vision is for California’s coast, and how it diverges from Dr. Lester’s performance record of fostering collaboration, providing the public a voice, moving projects and policies forward along our coast, and upholding the Coastal Act.
Dr. Lester's collaborative spirit led to the passage of several important policies and projects by the Coastal Commission, including the Santa Monica Mountains Local Coastal Plan and California's first sea-level rise policy providing guidance to coastal communities about how to prepare for climate change.
We are grateful for the large outpouring of support from the public for Dr. Lester and the Coastal Act, a law poignantly referred to in public comment today as “the Constitution of our shores.” Unfortunately, the voice of the public was not heard, despite the thousands of people that rallied behind Dr. Lester encouraging the Commission to maintain his position.
OK, so clearly an internal rift at the Coastal Commission, a state agency that rules on development along the coast as enforcer of the 1970s initiative that made almost all of the California coast public and subject to regulation. Gov. Brown's recent appointees were behind Lester's ouster, though Brown himself took no public opinion, while other Sacramento officials were for him. So clearly two sides, with prominent Democrats on both sides, like with many Coastal Commission actions, which mostly get a pass from the media, but which are closely watched and often controversial -- pro and con -- in communities affected.
The LA Times has really chosen to side with the enviro groups' take that firing Lester is an outrage story, and a pretty big one. Tonight, the main news story is accompanied by a news sidebar and an editorial from the editorial board. A tight close-up photo of Lester takes up the entire top of the paper's website, pushing down even today's far more shocking news: the plea bargain by former Sheriff Lee Baca. This is how the Times web page looks tonight: good luck trying to learn quickly what's hot news in the world or the region.
The Times' coverage today also included five tweets about the coastal commission from the assistant managing editor for California news:
Was the Times really into this story or what? The #2 editor at the whole paper also tweeted about it five times:
Puzzle: Coastal Commissioners said they couldn't bare reasons for Lester firing. Their counsel said they could. https://t.co/CziYXWD8BZ— Marc Duvoisin (@MarcDuvoisin) February 11, 2016
Lopez live-tweeted the meeting, posting more than a dozen times:
I've not heard such unconditional praise for any employee anywhere. Is coast commish swayed, or defiantly digging in on plan to bury Lester?— Steve Lopez LA Times (@LATstevelopez) February 10, 2016
The Times reporters at the scene also kept the tweets coming, as did various other newsroom staffers, including California editor Bob Sipchen — who happens to have been a spokesman and editor for the Sierra Club before returning to the Times and his current straight news job.
Was the future of the California coast really decided today? I still don't know, but it doesn't look like it. That won't really be known until we see what the coastal commission does on big development questions over the next, oh, five to ten years. Will the Times and other news media cover the nitty gritty of what the commission does going forward? Open question. They haven't really up to now.