Powerful California coastal panel ousts top executive

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – The powerful agency that manages development on California’s coastline fired its executive Wednesday after a lengthy and, at times, emotionally charged meeting that veered from accusations about the influence of developers and lobbyists to discussions on the mundane inner workings of government.

The California Coastal Commission voted 7-5 to dismiss Executive Director Charles Lester, who has held the post since 2011. The vote was taken behind closed doors.

The shake-up raises 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.

The decision to oust Lester stood in striking contrast with a daylong meeting that amounted to a nearly unanimous show of support for the embattled executive director and his staff. Hundreds of people filled a meeting room in Morro Bay to capacity, with scores more outside, many waving signs saying “More Lester” and “Save Our Coast.” Supporters chanted outside: “We want Lester.”

Environmental activists suspect some commission members wanted to push out Lester to make way for management that would be more favourable to development, while a business group has questioned the tactics of the agency’s staff.

Before the vote, several commission members said that talk of a “coup” or “conspiracy” to oust Lester was a groundless narrative pushed in the media by those eager to save Lester’s job.

Instead, without directly attacking Lester, they indicated that the proposal to dismiss him was rooted in questions about Lester’s job performance and how he interacted with the commission and entities regulated by them. Some complained they had been left in the dark on important matters, or had difficulty obtaining information.

“It makes for easy drama to paint this as some plot by a gang of blood-thirsty developers who see only one man in their way of total destruction of the coast,” said Commissioner Mark Vargas.

The commission heard from dozens of witnesses, including members of its staff, all supporting Lester’s work. They praised him for a balanced hand in regulation and thorough and independent evaluation of proposed projects along the coastline.

Lester’s supporters repeatedly evoked the creation of the commission in the early 1970s, when rapid development was reshaping the California coast. Without checks and balances, they warned, California’s coast could become lined with high-rise buildings and luxury resorts open to the wealthy few.

Susan Jordan of the California Coastal Protection Network warned that Lester’s removal could threaten beach access for the public and open a new era of unchecked development.

“There will always be another billionaire who will block access to the beach,” she warned, alluding to notorious fights over beaches in Malibu and other celebrity enclaves.

William L. Perocchi, chief executive of the Pebble Beach Co., which owns the famed seaside golf course, submitted a letter to the panel calling Lester “fair, pragmatic, creative, open and reasonable.”

Commission Chairman Steve Kinsey notified Lester in a letter last month that the panel would consider whether to fire him.

Lester’s dismissal comes in the midst of a long-running review of a proposed development of nearly 1,400 homes, a resort and retail space known as Banning Ranch in the Newport Beach area.

Despite wide publicity on Lester’s fate, Gov. Jerry Brown, who appoints four commission members, distanced himself from the debate. His spokesman, Evan Westrup, said in a statement that “this is a matter the Coastal Commission initiated without any involvement from our office.”

All of Brown’s appointees on the panel voted to fire Lester.

The 12-member commission has received about 29,000 letters and emails, virtually all of them supporting Lester’s leadership.

But a letter from the Los Angeles County Business Federation, an alliance of 155 business groups, faulted the commission’s staff for a lack of accountability and regulatory overreach.

“California Coastal Commission staff attempt to assert control over facilities, projects and land use” outside of their control, according to the letter received by the panel Wednesday.

Lester has aggressively defended his tenure and depicted himself as an able steward of the coast. He has said he and the commission have made strides addressing the effects of sea-level rise tied to climate change, protecting open space and winning additional funding.

He defended his record for nearly 40 minutes Wednesday, stressing the need for an independent, impartial staff to review projects, with the commission then voting on those recommendations.

“If the two intertwine, then the recommendation or the commission decision … will be untrustworthy,” he warned.