The newly fired executive director of the California Coastal Commission said Thursday that commissioners have shifted in recent years to be more accommodating to coastal developers and to exert tighter control over day-to-day activities at the agency.
"This commission seems to be more interested in and receptive to the concerns of the development community as a general rule," Charles Lester said in comments similar to those expressed by hundreds of supporters who spoke at a public hearing before his dismissal. "There is less focus on how we can make decisions to implement the Coastal Act.
"That's different than saying it's development versus environment," he said. "It's more nuanced. But I think it remains to be seen how it will unfold."
Lester, 53, spoke in a hotel room a few hundred feet from where the agency he ran for more than four years continued a regular meeting without him. Acting under one of the nation's strongest coastal protection laws, the 1976 Coastal Act, the agency is charged with protecting the state's 1,100-mile shoreline from overdevelopment, threats to public access and environmental damage.
For the first time in the agency's history, coastal commissioners have dismissed an executive director. Commissioners voted 7 to 5 in a closed session late Wednesday to fire their executive following a long and emotional hearing in which hundreds of speakers, including environmentalists, elected officials and former commissioners came out in Lester's defense.
Commissioners have not specified the reasons for their action, saying they are prevented from discussing the contents of past performance reviews that are confidential. But several have cited problems with management, trust and communications, including a lack of follow-through on commissioners' directions and staff not returning phone calls.
"It was like pulling teeth," Commissioner Roberto Uranga said Thursday. "We had an executive director who wasn't working with the commission."
In the hourlong interview Lester, his suitcase already packed to return to his home outside Santa Cruz, spoke calmly and carefully as he detailed his long-brewing tensions with the commission and his worries over the future of its work.
By Lester's account, when he took over at the agency in 2011, about half the commission was new, having been on the panel for less than a year. He said they began to intrude more into what are traditionally staff-managed affairs, including new hires, agendas, budgets and meeting locations. They also demanded that agency employees be more responsive to members of the panel.
He called those typical management issues that he had worked to address.
Lester cited what he said were some commissioners' "obsessive focus on the complaints about how long things take and not filing things" on projects including Newport Banning Ranch, a controversial proposal to build hundreds of homes on a 401-acre parcel that is the largest remaining privately held piece of coastal land in Orange County.
Last fall, Lester and his staff recommended denying the project on the grounds that it would destroy environmentally sensitive habitat. The project will be under consideration again by the panel in March.
Was his ouster an effort by pro-development forces to take control of the commission?
"Yes and no," said Lester, who sees the notion of a stark divide between development and the environment as an oversimplification.
Lester suspects he was fired because he was too independent. He is concerned about the direction of the panel if it chooses to replace him with an executive more amenable to the suggestions of commissioners and development interests.
Lester said the public response to his ouster has "touched a nerve about this program that I don't think is fully appreciated yet. It may be that we are at a watershed moment. Unless the political system in California recommits to the spirit and intent of the Coastal Act, it may be a fundamental shift in direction."
"This is a powerful land use agency, there's a lot at stake and there are vested interests that want things done," he said. But the agency's staff, he stressed, must remain independent and at an arm's length from political appointees in order to make impartial recommendations on projects large and small.
Lester said commissioners had long kept him on a "pretty tight leash," conducting many evaluations and quarterly check-ins on his performance over the last year. But he said he addressed the concerns raised and called commissioners' focus on the confidentiality of his written reviews a "smokescreen."
"They could talk about whatever performance issues they wanted," Lester said. "That was just a way to enable them to go into closed session."
Lester said he is considering waiving his rights to privacy over those documents to dispel the notion that they contained anything that "rises to the level of doing what they did and taking the kind of action that they did."
Such a disclosure would also have to be approved by the commission, he said.
Lester said that when he was appointed head of the politically charged agency in 2011, he understood that some would see it as "an opportunity to try to wrest the program from its historic direction," which he says has been to err on the side of coastal protection, public access and broad participation in its decision making.
"I knew people would try to take me out, or reorient the program," he said. "I think there have been people interested in doing that from the beginning."
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