In a 7-5 vote, the California Coastal Commission on Wednesday dismissed embattled executive director Charles Lester.
The vote came after more than seven hours of testimony from Lester and public comment that overwhelmingly opposed dismissing him. Hundreds of people from all over California waited all day at the public hearing in Morro Bay to hear his fate.
The move to oust the Lester 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.
Commissioners went into a closed-door session to discuss the dismissal just before 8 p.m., the second closed session of the day.
The dismissal takes effect immediately, with senior deputy director Jack Ainsworth leading the agency until the commission selects an interim and replacement.
"It's disgraceful that the commissioners voted in secret to fire Dr. Lester," Steve Jones, oceans communications specialist for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a written statement. "This isn't over."
In his remarks after the vote, Lester said, “It’s been a privilege to serve the commission for the past 4½ years. If there is a silver lining, I’ve been energized by all the people who came together on this.”
As the public hearing on the Coastal Commission director’s fate stretched into its fifth hour, praise kept pouring in for Charles Lester from former commissioners and staffers, environmentalists and coastal residents.
“You're getting killed here today," said former commission chief counsel Ralph Faust, referring to the overwhelming show of support for Lester. He urged the commission to make its decision in a public session, adding that “whatever it is, own it and defend it."
Anna Christensen of Long Beach said the commission’s decision would make history, telling the panel, “You will be judged very harshly, because we know exactly what's going on."
Pam Slater-Price, a former San Diego County supervisor, advised commissioners to listen carefully to the public's opinion and weigh it against whatever concerns they may have.
“The coast and the beaches remain the No. 1 tourist attraction in California, not the built environment,” Slater-Price said. “The reason that we have the Coastal Act is to protect the finest resource that we have.”
"I was extremely dismayed to receive the notice that the Commission was going to consider my dismissal this month. When the Commission unanimously appointed me as Executive Director in 2011, I accepted the position with the goal of bringing continued professionalism, integrity and steady leadership to our mission.
"I knew that expectations would be high from core supporters of the program. I also knew that there might be a backlash and a concerted effort to change the program from those who hadn’t agreed with the direction of Peter Douglas, or from those frustrated by the long-standing institutional independence of the Commission.
"I was well familiar with the controversy that often surrounds our work, but my hope was to depoliticize my position. I wanted to focus on our mission, while building a stronger agency with more capacity for problem-solving, partnership, and increased public accessibility. And while there surely is more to do, I believe I have moved the Commission forward on all of these fronts. "
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