The California Coastal Commission on Wednesday appointed a 27-year veteran of the agency to temporarily replace the top executive the panel fired last month.
The action came as scores of protesters showed up at the commission meeting in Santa Monica to continue voicing their disapproval of Charles Lester's ouster on Feb. 10.
The commission voted 7 to 5 to terminate Lester during a secret session and with little public explanation at its Morro Bay meeting, where the panel took comment from more than 200 people who opposed Lester's dismissal.
At Wednesday's hearing, the panel voted 11 to 1 to appoint Jack Ainsworth, the agency's senior deputy director, as interim executive director until a permanent replacement is named.
"I consider this meeting the start of the next 40 years of the commission," said Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, the panel's chairman. "How we proceed is important. We need to reestablish our commitment to the California Coastal Act and rebuild trust."
Ainsworth, 58, of Ventura, has a bachelor's degree in environmental studies and geography from Cal State San Bernardino, as well as a master's degree in geography from UC Riverside. He has served as the commission's senior deputy director since 2011.
Agency sources say Ainsworth is respected by commission staff, has a deep commitment to public service and is very knowledgeable about the Coastal Act. The law sets the parameters, requirements and priorities for environmental protection, development and the use of marine resources along the state's 1,100 miles of coastline.
"I appreciate your vote of confidence at this difficult time," Ainsworth told the commission. "We will continue that important work of the commission — work based on fact, the law and strict application of the California Coastal Act."
During the public comment portion of the meeting, members of the public criticized the commission for firing Lester, the lack of transparency surrounding his ouster and the increasing construction of large, expensive homes in Venice, which is changing the character of the neighborhood and driving out low- and moderate-income residents.
"Whatever it is, we're not buying it," said Julie Ross of Playa del Rey. "We aren't even renting it."
After a speaker accused the commission of betraying the public trust, Kinsey cut off public comment, saying it would resume later in the day.
"Sorry it's so inconvenient for you to hear from us," one protester shouted.
Commissioner Wendy Mitchell then rose to defend the panel and offer her explanation of Lester's firing. She said that there were communication problems and a lack of diversity at the senior levels of the agency and that requests from commissioners went unfulfilled.
"I lost confidence in Charles. He dodged questions and failed to communicate," Mitchell said.
As jeers and shouts of "Resign" and "Fire her" came from the audience, Kinsey called for order and told Mitchell to stop talking. Commissioners "don't respond to public comment," he said to her. "I'm seriously interested in you cutting off your comments."