Transparency debate follows vote by California coastal panel

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – The agency that decides what gets built and where along the California coast is facing questions about transparency after it pushed out its top executive in a closed-door vote and without a clear explanation of why the change was being made.

Executive Director Charles Lester was dismissed on a 7-5 tally Wednesday night, which was announced after the commission listened to hours of testimony from dozens of witnesses, virtually all of it extolling Lester’s work and commitment to a coastline open for all.

Former Commissioner Steve Blank, who was viewed as an environmental advocate while on the panel and resigned in 2013, said he was astonished by the commission’s decision to take a vote in private on the closely watched debate over Lester’s future.

“It should have been explained in public,” Blank said. “What did they do? They retreated to the back room.”

In an interview Thursday, Lester also questioned why a vote out of public view was needed. He said complaints raised by some commissioners about his lack of communication with them or diversity within the agency were not sufficient to justify his ouster.

He argued in a statement before the vote that the staff and commission members have separate roles — the staff studies proposed projects and makes recommendations, then the panel votes on them. To mingle those roles, he warned, would make the process untrustworthy.

So why was he fired?

“Maybe I was too independent,” Lester said.

“We are dealing with issues with a lot of money involved and a lot at stake. There is a lot of interest in the power that is inherent in the process,” he said.

“It’s really about the management of the staff and who drives that process — the commission or the executive director,” he added.

The shake-up has opened questions about the direction of an agency often caught in the clash between property rights and conservation. The panel has broad sway over construction and environmental issues in coastal areas that include some of the most coveted real estate in the U.S.

Environmental activists suspect some commission members wanted to push out Lester to make way for management that would be more favourable to development, a claim described as groundless by several commissioners Wednesday.

“What’s not fair is to characterize us as a bunch of developer hacks,” Vice Chair Dayna Bochco said.

The commission’s chairman, Steve Kinsey, notified Lester in a letter last month that the panel will consider whether to fire him next month.

No reason was given for the proposed dismissal.

Legally, the commission was allowed to vote in public or private, according to a memo from its legal staff. Additionally, the commission was under no requirement to divulge reasons for their action, the memo said.

Several commissioners said a private discussion on Lester was needed to protect his privacy rights under law.

Commissioner Roberto Uranga said the commission had been given “a gag order, we’ve been muzzled” on what could be said about Lester and his performance in public. He said Lester “has his due process, has the right of privacy.”

But the commission’s legal memo said the members could discuss their thoughts on Lester’s management in public, providing they didn’t talk about his confidential past evaluations.

“By requesting a public hearing, the executive director has consented to a public deliberation and vote about whether he should be dismissed,” the memo said.

Before the vote, some commissioners presented a scattershot of complaints about their work with the staff and Lester. They ranged widely: Bochco, who voted to keep Lester, said she often found it difficult to get information and have calls returned.

Commissioner Martha McClure, who voted to oust Lester, said she is often swamped with reports and paperwork by the staff without sufficient time to analyze it before meetings. Commissioner Mark Vargas said not enough was being done to diversify the staff, and he’d never seen a detailed budget.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s four appointees to the commission voted to fire Lester: Wendy Mitchell, Erik Howell, Effie Turnbull-Sanders and McClure. Others supporting his ouster were Vargas, Olga Diaz and Roberto Uranga. Voting against the proposal were Kinsey, the chair, Carole Groom, Mary Shallenberger, Mary Luevano and Bochco.

Other members are appointed by the leaders in the state Senate and Assembly.

After the vote, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, tweeted, “Let me apologize to the public. I truly thought my appointees would be better stewards of the coast.”