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Coastal Commission chief defends his record as panel moves to fire him

The embattled head of the California Coastal Commission is defending his record in his first public comments since members of the panel launched an effort to fire him from the powerful land-use agency.

In a memo, Executive Director Charles Lester offers a defense of the agency’s work to protect public access and the environment, prepare for climate change and review development projects up and down the coast.

“My vision has been clear and incisive, and that my performance and accomplishments in the administration of the coastal program have been exceptionally strong,” Lester wrote in the 20-page document, which includes a detailed list of accomplishments during his four-year tenure and a copy of his curriculum vitae.

Lester also appealed to the people of California to weigh in on his possible termination at a hearing scheduled for next week.

“I believe the public should be heard,” Lester wrote in the memo, released late Thursday.

The 12-member commission voted unanimously to appoint Lester in 2011, replacing Peter Douglas, the politically savvy environmentalist who ran the agency for decades, often clashing with powerful developers and politicians over building projects and encroachments on the public’s right to use the beach.

Lester wrote that when he was appointed executive director, “I was well familiar with the controversy that often surrounds the Commission’s work, but my hope was that I could help to depoliticize the position.”

Last month commissioners notified Lester they would be considering his dismissal, giving him the option of quietly resigning or taking the matter to a public hearing.

Lester chose the hearing. That decision has turned what would otherwise be a closed-door incident into an impassioned public debate over the future of the commission, which has broad authority over land use along 1,100 miles of coastline that includes some of the most valuable and coveted real estate in the nation.

In recent days, the commission has received an outpouring of public support for Lester. Of more than 17,000 letters from the public received by the agency, all but three are in favor of retaining Lester, according to a Coastal Commission spokeswoman.

On Friday, Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), along with nine other California congressional members, warned in a letter sent to commission Chairman Steve Kinsey and Gov. Jerry Brown that firing Lester would threaten the nonpartisan nature of the commission’s work and risk its legacy and validity.

“The essential responsibility of the Coastal Commission is to uphold the strong protections for our California coastline through lawful and nonpartisan implementation of our foundational coastal protection laws, including the Coastal Protection Act, the California Coastal Act, and the Coastal Zone Management Act,” the letter said. “Since his unanimous approval by the Commission in 2011, Dr. Lester has upheld the law by thoughtfully balancing economic opportunity, access, and conservation for the benefit of all Californians.”

Also signing the letter were Reps. Julia Brownley (D-Westlake Village), John Garamendi (D-Walnut Creek), Sam Farr (D-Carmel), Janice Hahn (D-San Pedro), Mike Honda (D-San Jose), Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), and Adam Schiff (D-Burbank).

Later in the afternoon, the agency posted a letter to the commission signed by 153 of its staff members that opposed the firing of Lester. The staff praised his “quiet, thoughtful, deliberative leadership style” and “fair and even-handed application of Coastal Act policies.”

“His dismissal would be an incalculable loss to the agency and to the state, and would be a demoralizing blow to all of us,” the staff members wrote.

Environmentalists and other supporters of the commission contend the attempted ouster has nothing to do with Lester, who they say is an effective, by-the-books administrator who makes decisions based on scientific and legal requirements rather than political considerations. They see something else: an attempt by pro-development forces to gain control over the agency and make it more accommodating to private interests.

Critics of Lester have raised concerns about his management abilities, charging that under his watch the agency has not done enough to increase its transparency, the diversity of its staff and its responsiveness to commissioners and project applicants.

In the report, Lester addresses several of those criticisms, offering suggestions “to help us navigate beyond our current, difficult situation.”

He commits to new initiatives to improve staff’s communication with commissioners, increase the diversity of its workforce and address “issues related to the efficiency and work flows of our regulatory and planning programs.”

“More can be done to meet our goal of reflecting the broad diversity of California, and we must pursue any and all permissible methods to achieve this goal,” Lester wrote.

Lester also committed to a workshop examining how the commission considers the protection of environmentally sensitive habitat. Such provisions of the Coastal Act that have been a major obstacle to development of coastal land and the subject of a number of critical questions by commissioners at recent meetings.

The public hearing on Lester’s dismissal, scheduled for Feb. 10 in Morro Bay, is expected to draw supporters and elected officials from across the state, who will be allowed two minutes each to comment before commissioners decide the executive’s fate.

The commission has moved the 10 a.m hearing from a hotel to a larger venue, the auditorium of the Morro Bay Community Center, to accommodate the large number of public speakers expected.

In his report, Lester said he asked for a hearing on his dismissal “as much for the public as for my desire to continue as the Commission’s executive director,” citing language from the 1976 Coastal Act that says “the public has a right to fully participate in decisions affecting coastal planning.”

For more news on California and the environment, follow @tonybarboza

Times staff writer Dan Weikel contributed to this report. 

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

6:15 p.m.: This story has been updated to include letters to the Coastal Commission from lawmakers and agency staff.

This story was originally published at 9:47 a.m., Feb. 5.

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