Coastal Commission moves to fire executive director

01/28/2016

California Coastal Commissioners will vote next month on whether to fire their executive director, Charles Lester, leading some to speculate that pro-development forces are seeking a friendlier leader.

West Marin Supervisor Steve Kinsey, the chair of the commission, wrote in a Jan. 14 letter that Mr. Lester had the option of presenting a “transition plan” to replace himself. Instead Mr. Lester, who succeeded longtime executive director and noted firebrand Peter Douglas, elected to invoke his right to a public hearing. It is scheduled for Feb. 10 in Morro Bay. 

Mr. Kinsey said there is not much he can reveal on the personnel matter, but did say that Mr. Lester had an annual performance review in December. He disputed claims that the move is motivated by development issues. 

“There is understandable fear that this is being driven by developers wanting to undermine the Coastal Act, but the reality is more complicated,” Mr. Kinsey said. 

The commission regulates 1,100 miles of coastline—including over 80,000 acres in West Marin—much of which is prime real estate. Some environmentalists have pointed to projects recently approved in Southern California, such as U2 guitarist The Edge’s five-home complex on an undeveloped Malibu ridge, as reasons to worry about the commission’s leanings. (The Sierra Club filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles County over the commission’s ruling on the project this week.)

“I think over the last 15 years, the coastal commission has been slowly—and I think all the advocacy groups can verify it—slowly moving to conservative pro-growth position,” said Scott Tye, a Stinson Beach resident and head of the Marin chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, an environmentally focused nonprofit.

Mr. Tye pointed to a unanimous decision in August to approve a new guidance on sea-level rise, which some realtor groups believed was too restrictive. He wondered if it has inspired blowback. 

“I don’t understand how [commissioners] got from supporting a very strong and important [guidance] in August, which they all voted for, to today, when they’re not wanting to support the executive director,” Mr. Tye said. 

The guidance outlined current science on sea-level rise and advised commissioners on how that should be addressed in Local Coastal Programs and coastal permits, including how and when revetments—structures built on coastlines to prevent erosion—should be allowed.

Bridger Mitchell, the board president of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, called the potential firing “a frightening prospect for future protections of California’s coastal areas. Dr. Lester is a staunch defender of the 1976 California Coastal Act, our rights as Californians to the open public access to the coast, and the protection of our irreplaceable coastline.”

He said the E.A.C. is working with other groups to hire a bus to take people to the hearing, which people will be able to sign up for online.

A former coastal commissioner from Silicon Valley who served from 2007 to 2013, Steve Blank, has also publicly criticized the move against Mr. Lester, writing Tuesday in the Los Angeles Times, “Some commissioners are apparently willing to gut their own agency, violate the public trust and deliver a more compliant executive director who will make it easier to build large projects on the coast with less oversight.”

The potential firing comes at a time when Marin is still in a nearly decade-long process of updating its Local Coastal Program, which will include new rules on development and agriculture in West Marin. 

That process began at the county level in 2008, and the Board of Supervisors approved an update in 2013. But coastal commission staff subsequently made over 600 changes, ranging from minor tweaks in language to much more substantial shifts in agricultural policies and regulations around development in hazardous areas. 

The commission approved part of the L.C.P. in 2014. But when it went back to the county for final approval, the county decided to rescind its application, as some substantive disputes remained. Some of the biggest issues revolved around how to regulate development in hazardous areas, like bluffs, with commission staffers preferring stricter rules.  

The county resubmitted a part of the L.C.P. last fall, but it is now waiting to complete its sea-level rise analysis program, called C-SMART, before submitting the remaining sections on coastal hazards. The commission is expected to revisit the update this fall. 

Since the news about Mr. Lester’s possible ouster became public, some have suggested that he is a weak leader and manager. A Los Angeles Times columnist wrote this week that he spoke to one commissioner, who remained anonymous, critical of Mr. Lester. 

“[T]his commissioner cited a lack of vision, an inability to get the most out of staff and a disappointing lack of diversity in recent hires,” wrote columnist Steve Lopez.

Mr. Douglas, too, who was praised by environmentalists for his zealous efforts to protect the coast from development, faced an attempted ouster in 1996. New appointees had led to a Republican majority on the commission, and a plan was in the works to replace Mr. Douglas with someone from Republican Gov. Pete Wilson’s administration, according to a San Francisco Chronicle article from the time. 

(Four commissioners are appointed by the governor, four by the speaker of the state assembly and four by the Senate Rules Committee.) 

But Mr. Douglas rallied hundreds of supporters to a boisterous commission hearing, and he ultimately remained at his post until he retired during his battle with lung cancer, in 2011.

That year Mr. Lester, a former political science professor who had been the commission’s deputy director since 2006 and had worked at the commission since 1997, took the post.