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Gov. Brown is mute as Coastal Commission Coup gains steam

What will California's coast look like five, 20, and 50 years from now, and who will decide?

A few developers? A handful of lobbyists? Rock stars and moguls? Environmentalists? The governor?

Will the boogie boarders, birders, snorkelers, sailors, surfers, old guys with metal detectors, Christians who sing around fire pits, Muslim families who picnic, joggers, abalone divers, sun worshippers and sand castle builders have a say?

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We are now in Week 2 of the great California Coastal Commission Coup, in which a flotilla of commissioners is angling to throw Executive Director Charles Lester overboard without a public explanation as to why.

Rather than go quietly, Lester has requested a hearing, and the showdown is scheduled for Feb. 10.

Defenders of the imperiled coast are rallying to defend Lester, while Gov. Jerry Brown and state legislative leaders — who share the appointment of commissioners — have been silent as sea slugs.

Here are my questions: What exactly has Lester's record been, and why are Brown's appointees out to get him?

Fifty environmental and social justice groups say that Lester's five-year record of interpreting and enforcing the Coastal Act is a good one. That coalition made its feelings known Tuesday in a sharply worded letter delivered to commission Chairman Steve Kinsey and state leaders.

"We are deeply concerned over the unjustified and misguided attempt currently under way to oust Dr. Lester," said the letter from representatives of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Heal the Bay and dozens of other groups.

The letter listed a number of accomplishments under Lester's reign and offered a different version of reality than I got last week from a commissioner who spoke to me anonymously.

The commissioner denied allegations that a pro-development faction wants to shove Lester out of the way and open the coast to more construction, saying the real reason is "a growing sense that there are management issues."

Such as?

Per the commissioner: Slow response to commission requests, lack of leadership, lack of vision, lack of diversity in hiring and lack of transparency.

While we're on the subject of "lack of," how about the lack of specificity in those claims, many of which critics dismiss as hogwash?

To look at just one, diversity, an agency report notes that about 30% of the Coastal Commission's staffers self-identify as minorities. Not perfect, but not bad.

There's lots of evidence, on the other hand, that pro-development forces are getting bolder about throwing their weight around.

I noted several cases in my Sunday column in which commissioners have challenged or dismissed staff recommendations against projects that would diminish the public's access to or enjoyment of the coast.

The agency's database indicates that since Lester took his job in 2011, he and his staff's expert opinion to deny coastal projects has often been pummeled by commissioners.

The trend is troubling. In 2006 alone commissioners denied 26 projects, whereas in the last four years commissioners denied a total of 24 projects.

Lester's admirers don't characterize the cerebral wonk as perfect. Some wish he had more political skill.

But an annual report Lester released Tuesday shows significant progress in his five-year strategic plan.

The gang of 50 enviro groups' letter also blows away any suggestion that Lester's been sitting on a beach sunning himself.

Among the accomplishments it cites:

New penalties for those who illegally deny beach access.

A massive blueprint for helping local communities plan for sea-level rise.

The updating of local coastal plans up and down the state.

Reduced process times for permits and appeals.

Creation of a database so the public can get information on projects in the works.

Treating beach access for low-income and minority residents as a civil rights issue.

"We've made tremendous progress under Dr. Lester," said lawyer Robert Garcia of the City Project, which has fought for beach access in Malibu and other areas where private property owners have used guards, bogus signs and parking restrictions to keep citizens off public beaches. "The beach belongs to everybody. Not just the rich and famous and the mainstream enviros."

Beach access is just one example of what's at stake here.

The Coastal Commission is in the business of deciding on proposals for residential properties, hotels, energy production facilities and other coastal projects that together are worth billions of dollars. And yet there's not a lot of transparency built into the process.

If you want to build a hotel, for example, you hire a lobbyist who in some cases is very chummy with coastal commissioners. But those lobbyists aren't even classified as lobbyists.

They're "agents" under the law, and don't have to report how much they're being paid. Those same lobbyist/agents are known to ante up at fundraisers for commissioners who run for local office in their communities.

Serving as a commissioner, then, means you can belly up to what's been described as a fundraising chuck wagon.

There are rules in place to prevent conflicts of interest when it comes to coastal commission business, but the potential for abuse is one more reason to be wary of any attempt by any commissioners to take greater control of the agency from staff.

"What you want to make sure of is that the agency is not captured, or produces analysis that is slanted in one way or another. The only slant should be what's in the Coastal Act," said Susan Jordan of the California Coastal Protection Network.

Jordan, involved in coastal protection for 20 years, said she advocates for her position just as lobbyists advocate for theirs.

What the agency needs, and has in Lester, is someone who plays it straight, she said. "I've watched, and I do believe he does an honorable and admirable job."

She wonders, as do I, if Brown — who recently took bows in Europe for his environmental leadership — is even paying attention.

Hard to say.

I asked to talk to Brown again Tuesday, and I got the same brushoff his staff gave me last week.

Is it me, or are his once-charming quirks becoming more irksome?

Brown is the one who signed coastal protection into law in 1976, and yet his appointees are the ones said to be leading the charge against Lester.

It'd be nice to know if he's behind the ouster, or at least what he thinks about it.

All that's at stake is the future of the world's greatest 1,100 miles of coastline.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 27, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Brown is mute as coastal coup effort unfolds" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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