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Why the new Coastal Commission chief is a good bet to defend California's beaches

Jack Ainsworth talks about the trips as if they happened last week, nine kids piling into the car with Mom and Dad.

Starting point: Their home in San Bernardino.

Destination: The beach.

“It was a big standard station wagon with an extra seat that folded up,” said Ainsworth. “And it was funny because there was always some horrible disastrous thing that happened.”

Like one of his brothers or sisters getting sick. Or the time one of the kids couldn’t wait for a bathroom stop, used a container as a commode, and tried to pour it out the window of the moving car.

“It created a suction,” said Ainsworth.

I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

The Ainsworths traveled from 98 degrees to 78, and when they ran out of land, the 18-footed brood hauled out the sandwiches and footballs and the skimboards they’d fashioned themselves. They had to hike a ways because dear old Dad refused to pay for parking, but eventually their toes sank into sand.

“It hit all your senses, the sights, the sounds, the smells. It just embraced me,” said Ainsworth. “Wow! That love of the beach, and the power of it all. To see the forces of nature at work, it was so cool to me.”

Ainsworth is no kid today, but as we strolled the promenade near the Ventura Pier last week, he took in the scenery with a boyish grin. And why not? The kid who grew up loving Huntington Beach, Laguna, Newport and San Clemente is the new man in charge of defending an unparalleled treasure: the glorious 1,100-mile California coast.

“I have to pinch myself,” said Ainsworth, who beat out two other finalists and got the job Feb. 10.

The year 2016, you may recall, was disastrous for the California Coastal Commission, beginning with the firing of beloved Executive Director Charles Lester by the politically appointed commissioners just as some huge development proposals were coming up for review. Lester’s staff was demoralized, coastal stewards were frosted, and many believed several commissioners were way too chummy with developers.

It was a crummy way to mark the 40th anniversary of the Coastal Act, a citizen-inspired mandate for limited development, coastal protection and public access to beaches. The Times exposed commissioners who skirted rules governing private meetings, among other ethical lapses. Lawsuits followed and are still in play.

The man who was asked to step up and be interim leader of the agency, in the midst of this drama, was Ainsworth, a steady hand and loyal soldier who had started at the bottom rung of the Coastal Commission staff in 1988. As the commissioners began their long search for a permanent executive director, Ainsworth wasn’t particularly interested in a job that had become so politicized.

But he had a change of heart. Ainsworth, whose entire family works in public service or once did, felt a sense of duty to the staff, to California, to the coast itself.

“I came to the realization that I had to take this position. It’s everything I’ve worked for my entire career and it would have been a betrayal to not step up and serve,” said Ainsworth.

It’s still not clear to me why Lester was thrown overboard, although it seems some commissioners thought they were doing what the Brown administration wanted.

We were given flimsy claims that Lester wasn’t a good manager and didn’t respond quickly enough to requests. We also were told, unconvincingly, that he didn’t hire enough minorities or work hard enough on coastal access for people of color. The commissioners who made those charges were and continue to be, for the most part, missing in action themselves.

But the sloppy and brutal nature of Lester’s dismissal was a blessing in disguise, because it made clear that the problem wasn’t the staff, but the commission. Now that the rot has been exposed, there’s hope for improvement.

Ainsworth, a no-nonsense guy who speaks his mind, may have just the right mix of leadership ability, scientific knowledge, staff support and political skill to maintain the staff’s all-important independence from outside forces. The executive director serves at the pleasure of the commissioners, and Ainsworth said he’s ready to collaborate. But he said he made clear to his bosses that he will manage the staff and be faithful to the Coastal Act, and he needs the commission to trust him in that role.

His job is likely to be made easier by the fact that Dayna Bochco is now the commission chair, and she doesn’t put up with much nonsense from gasbag commissioners. Gone is Commissioner Martha McClure, who thought it was perfectly ethical to stay at the home of a lobbyist who does business before the commission. Gone, too, is Janelle Beland, the Brown administration front person who was like a den mother to all the commissioners with the worst instincts.

And last but not least, Ainsworth won’t have to deal with Wendy Mitchell, who didn’t know a vernal pool from a ditch, and whose gift to California was her recent resignation from the commission.

Not that there aren’t still a few stiffs on the dais. But Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders have a chance this year to make better appointments, and the pressure is on to get it right, because the media and the public will be eyeballing every move.

Ainsworth has nothing to do with any of that; all he wants to do is get to work. He wants to defend the coast from any more offshore drilling or meddling by the new administration. He wants to push counties and cities to develop coastal protection plans. He wants to join efforts to create more low-cost accommodations near the beach, especially for families with nine kids who travel by station wagon. And he’d like monthly meetings to be held at universities instead of hotels, so students might develop greater interest in coastal issues and possibly pursue careers in the field. 

And he wants to develop relationships with the governor and legislative leaders. You’ve gotta collaborate, he said, and he’d appreciate the chance to make a pitch for more funding. With thousands of permit applications to handle, he said the agency has just one geologist, one engineer and three ecologists for the entire state. And salaries are so low, it’s hard to hold on to good people.

Ainsworth has had a long apprenticeship for a job that won’t be easy. But it seems that this is where he was supposed to end up, going all the way back to when the station wagon pulled out of San Bernardino.

Get more of Steve Lopez's work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez

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