By ousting director, coastal commissioners focus spotlight on themselves

After listening to hours of impassioned public comment, the California Coastal Commission late Wednesday voted 7 to 5 to fire Executive Director Charles Lester, disregarding a massive outpouring of support by a wide range of environmentalists, local government officials, commission staff and former commissioners.

Why was Lester ousted? During the meeting at Morro Bay, several commissioners finally did what they should have done long ago: They aired broad frustrations with a staff that occasionally seemed unresponsive to requests for more detailed information about projects, and revealed what seems to be a fundamental breakdown of communications -- including on such basic issues as the budget.

Some of those details spilled out at the end of Wednesday's prolonged public hearing, which was held at Lester's insistence. But the complaints the commissioners cited didn't rise to the level that required his dismissal; 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 environmental community and the media for mischaracterizing their motives as nefarious, while claiming that privacy issues precluded them from talking about Lester’s performance publicly. And then they talked about it publicly. But they passed up a chance for greater transparency by holding their final discussion and vote on Lester's dismissal behind closed doors.

Although its history has been at times unpredictable, and 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 seeking to erode coastal protections orchestrated Lester’s ouster, then Californians have good reason to worry. And to be angry. But even if this did come down to legitimate dissatisfaction with Lester’s performance as the top administrator in a bureaucracy that the commissioners incongruously lauded Wednesday, the members owed the public a fuller airing of the problems.

What this bodes for the future is uncertain, but the commissioners -- and Gov. Jerry Brown, whose four appointees reportedly pushed for the dismissal -- can rest assured that their every decision will now face even more intense scrutiny. By ignoring the public outpouring of support for Lester, the commissioners guaranteed that the questions about their motives will linger.

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