There's a bad smell seeping out of the California Coastal Commission, which voted 7-5 behind closed doors late Wednesday to fire Executive Director Charles Lester in direct repudiation of the huge number of environmentalists, local government officials, commission staff members and former commissioners who had supported him.
Why did Lester fall out of favor with some commissioners? His supporters contend that the commission has grown increasingly receptive to the entreaties of developers who want more freedom to build on California's coastline. And even after a day-long hearing Wednesday, which was held at Lester's request and drew an estimated 1,000 people from across the state, there was no definitive answer to that question.
But several members finally did what they should have done long ago: They talked about the problems in their relations with the commission staff. Some asserted that the staff failed to respond at times to requests for more detailed information about projects. They also complained about a fundamental breakdown of communications — including on such basic elements as the budget.
Lester referred to those as "organizational issues" that could be resolved. And from the outside, the complaints don't seem to justify dismissing a director so broadly lauded for his professionalism, and who enjoys near-unanimous support from his staff. In fact, at least two commissioners acknowledged that they agreed with 90% of the staff recommendations under Lester's leadership. So where is the crisis?
Some commissioners sought to blame the controversy over Lester's dismissal on environmentalists and the media for characterizing their motives as nefarious. They spoke as though wounded by the thought that activists might question their purity. But that's what public officials open themselves up to when they operate with insufficient transparency.
Oddly, the commissioners claimed that privacy issues precluded them from talking about Lester's performance publicly. But then they talked about it publicly before diving into executive session to hold their final discussions and vote in private, despite legal advice that such secrecy wasn't required. Lester afterward said the private meeting covered no fresh ground, so the commissioners passed up a chance for greater transparency for no real purpose. That they retreated behind closed doors despite a storm tide of outrage from the people in the room displayed an astonishing level of political tone-deafness. And, perhaps, cowardice. Yes, Lester could have made this easier by relinquishing his right to privacy and releasing his earlier performance evaluations, something he reportedly opted not to do because they contain details on other staffers' performance as well. But redactions could have taken care of that.
Ultimately, it was incumbent on the commissioners to present to the public sound, defensible, and professional reasons for dumping him. The issues they laid out Wednesday didn't clear that hurdle. But the controversy did cast a harsh light on the workings of the commission, including that people who lobby its members or staff aren't required to register as lobbyists or file public reports on their activities, as people seeking to influence other governmental bodies must do. That needs to change.
Although politics sometimes intrudes more deeply than it should into the decision-making process, the Coastal Commission has been vital to controlling California coastal development and preserving public access. It's too soon to say whether Lester's dismissal will be a tragedy for the coast, but if commission critics are right and pro-development forces orchestrated Lester's ouster, then Californians have good reason to worry. And to be angry.
The commissioners appointed one of Lester's top deputies, Jack Ainsworth, to lead the agency until they select an interim director and then a permanent replacement — a process that will bear watching. In fact, after this debacle the commissioners — and Gov. Jerry Brown, whose four appointees reportedly pushed for the dismissal — can rest assured that their every decision about coastal development will now face even more intense scrutiny.
Brown, whose appointees serve at his pleasure, could have intervened here, rather than waving off the issue as some low-level personnel matter. If the results are a less independent commission staff, and a weaker barrier between the coast and the developers, it will be his legacy to bear.