Demonstrators from San Diego to Humboldt County gathered outside the Morro Bay Community Center on Wednesday morning to show their support for California Coastal Commission Executive Director Charles Lester before a public hearing on firing him.
Elected officials and environmental activists held a rally and news conference in support of Lester and warn against any erosion to the state's strong coastal protections, some of them chanting, "We want Lester."
"We need a watchdog agency," said Bay Area billionaire and climate change activist Tom Steyer, citing the commission's important responsibilities to confront sea level rise.
"The people own the coast, we own the beach and we're asking the Coastal Commission to live up to their charge to protect our rights and defend the thing that is one of our greatest possession as California citizens," Steyer said.
Outside the community center's auditorium, the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental group, set up a tent with a table filled with brochures. People carried signs reading "Leave Lester Alone," "Save Our Coast," and "The Coast Is Not for Sale."
As the hour of the hearing approached, the 507 seats in the community center's auditorium were soon filled, leaving only room for the public to stand.
The 12-member commission, which went into closed session, is considering the dismissal of Lester, a 23-year veteran of the land use agency who was unanimously approved by the commission in 2011 to replace Peter Douglas, a politically savvy administrator and ardent environmentalist.
Lester is expected to defend himself during the hearing.
The move to oust the executive director has set off a fierce debate over the future of the Coastal Commission, which is responsible for policing and shaping land uses along the coast to reduce their environmental impacts.
Commission members say they have concerns about management, leadership, trust and communication involving Lester and the staff. They contend that some of the problems have persisted since roughly half the commission was replaced after Douglas' departure.
Environmentalists say that the criticism of Lester is a smokescreen and that the effort to fire him is being led by pro-development forces on the commission, including Gov. Jerry Brown's four appointees.
What is at stake, they say, is the ability of the commission staff to analyze proposed land uses along the coast independently and be free from political interference.
Lester was notified in writing on Jan. 14 that the commission would consider his dismissal and gave him the option of resigning or having a public hearing to determine his future. He chose the latter.
Since then, Lester has issued a 20-page memo in defense of his record and the agency's work. It included a detailed list of accomplishments during his four years as executive director.
"My vision has been clear and incisive, and ... my performance and accomplishments in the administration of the coastal program have been exceptionally strong," wrote Lester, who also appealed to the public to weigh in on his possible termination.
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Weikel reported from Los Angeles, Barboza from Morro Bay.