Some are calling it a coastal coup: The California Coastal Commission voted 7-5 to fire its executive director, Charles Lester, after a marathon meeting Wednesday night in Morro Bay.
Hundreds of environmentalists, surfers and hippies had flooded into the sleepy seaside town full of antique shops and saltwater taffy to speak out in favor of Lester. Others called, emailed and wrote letters — there were more than 26,000 comments, according to a commission spokesperson. All but four urged the commission not to fire Lester.
The bookish, understated Lester seemed almost bashful in response to the outpouring of support.
“People are asking me for autographs, selfies,” he laughed, before the vote. “I’m the director of a government agency!”
The 12-member Coastal Commission functions as a sort of uber-planning commission for the entire 1,100-mile stretch of California’s shoreline. If someone wants to add a second floor to their beach house, or if a motel a few blocks from the ocean wants to put in a swimming pool, they’ll probably have to go before the Coastal Commission for a permit.
In recent weeks, Lester has largely been lauded by environmentalists and civil rights groups for maintaining public access to the beach and keeping coastal development to a reasonable level. Many developers and lobbyists, on the other hand, say the Coastal Commission is government at its worst: slow, bureaucratic and unpredictable. The move to oust Lester was therefore seen by many as a move to make the commission more sympathetic to development and business interests.
"This is all about making more money," former coastal commissioner Steve Blank said before the meeting. "If they could change the executive director to be more reasonable, they're not gonna pave the coast by Thursday. But week by week, month by month, they will turn this into the Jersey Shore."
But angry commissioners pushed back against that narrative, which they said was being promoted by demagogic activists and peddled to a gullible media.
"I’m truly saddened by the damage that this media campaign has done to the reputation of this commission," commissioner Mark Vargas said.
"I think the press did a horrible job," said commissioner Dayna Bochco. "All they [wrote] was, 'Oh, this is some conspiracy.' That was all a bunch of lies. ... It’s an internal problem. It was never about developers or lobbyists or anything like that."
Even the commissioners who voted to keep Lester described communication problems between Lester and the commission. Others criticized the lack of diversity on Lester's staff and said the commission needed to do a better job providing low-cost accommodations near the coast.
Lester himself spoke before the vote to the commission and the audience, and he admitted that there had been certain problems between his staff and the commissioners: “Some have criticized the culture of the staff, arguing that it needs to be less independent and more user-friendly. … There are some cases where process could work better.”
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Lester succeeded longtime executive director Peter Douglas in 2011. Douglas had held the position for more than 25 years and was, by all accounts, a remarkably shrewd and perhaps even Machiavellian operator — and an effective defender of the coast.
“The coast is never saved,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. “It's always being saved. The job of environmental stewardship of the coast is never done. It's never dull, and it's never done."
The commission, some of whom were appointed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, tried to oust Douglas in the mid-1990s. But a huge outpouring of support from environmentalists changed the board’s mind, and Douglas got a reprieve.
Lester, his successor, didn't.