Science

California Coastal Commission members to consider firing executive director

Members of the California Coastal Commission are moving to fire its executive director, touching off a fierce debate over the commission's recent shift in favor of more development along the state's 1,000-mile shore.

The decision to consider firing Charles Lester was made at the commission's December meeting in Monterey, where the panel met in closed session for a "periodic performance review" of the executive director.

Lester was notified in a Jan. 14 letter that the panel "will consider whether to dismiss you" and gave him a choice of stepping aside and aiding in a transition or opting for a public hearing on his future. He chose the hearing, which ensures that the development tug of war will become the subject of public debate at a meeting scheduled for Feb. 10 in Morro Bay.

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FOR THE RECORD: A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of Coastal Commission spokeswoman Noaki Schwartz as Naoki.

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The move to oust Lester, a low-key but conservation-minded attorney who has headed the agency since 2011, is being led by pro-development members of the panel, including Gov. Jerry Brown's four appointees, said people familiar with the matter who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Commission Chairman Steve Kinsey, a Marin County supervisor who has headed the panel for three years, said in an interview that during the closed session, "a distinct majority of the commissioners wanted to consider his employment."

"I wish we didn't have to do this," Kinsey said. "I think it's very awkward to have a public hearing about someone's employment, but he exercised that option."

The 12-member commission wields broad authority over a zone that includes some of the most valuable real estate in the country. The commission was established by voters in 1972 to protect the coastline from overdevelopment and environmental harm and safeguard it for public access. It today is regarded as the most powerful land-use agency in the nation and a model for other states trying to preserve natural beauty.

Developers have long coveted the land regulated by the commission. It has grown in value in part because it has been kept relatively pristine. The commission regularly clashes with some of the state's wealthiest and most powerful interests — a contest of wills that Lester's predecessor, Peter Douglas, often won.

Douglas, an aggressive and hard-nosed environmentalist, spent more than 25 years running the commission and advocating forcefully for its independence. Months before his death in 2012, Douglas chose Lester from within the ranks of the agency as his successor, and the commission appointed him unanimously in 2011.

Lester declined to comment about his possible dismissal. Commission spokeswoman Noaki Schwartz wrote in an email that Lester "isn't giving any interviews but is expected to speak at the hearing in Morro Bay."

Environmental groups say the attempt to oust Lester is an outgrowth of a long-brewing shift among commissioners who have grown increasingly bold in asserting their control over agency staff, sometimes negotiating with developers during public meetings and going against agency recommendations to make concessions in favor of applicants.

Stefanie Sekich-Quinn, who tracks the commission as coastal preservation manager for the Surfrider Foundation, called the move to fire Lester "a power grab in an attempt to undermine the integrity of the coastal program, gain control over an independent staff and make the commission more developer-friendly without any public accountability or transparency."

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Fred Gaines, a Calabasas councilman and attorney who has represented developers and property owners before the commission for 25 years, said the move by commissioners was not entirely surprising to those who have long been dissatisfied with how the agency is managed. But he disputed that it was indicative of the commission tilting in favor of developers.

"There's a large group of commissioners, environmentalists or not, that are frustrated that the commission's operations are so slow and that the bureaucracy just never seems to get fixed," Gaines said.

A spokesman for Brown's office declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the state Natural Resources Agency, under which the Coastal Commission operates, also would not comment on a personnel matter.

Effie Turnbull-Sanders, a commissioner appointed in 2014 by Brown, said, "I was appointed to the commission to represent all of California and that's what I'm trying to do to my best ability and make sure that we are representing everyone equally and fairly."

Like other commissioners reached by The Times, she would not discuss the commission's action on its executive director, citing the confidentiality of personnel matters.

The commission is a mix of local elected officials and appointees from up and down the coast. Four are appointed by the governor, four by state Senate leaders and four by the state Assembly speaker.

Mel Nutter, a Long Beach attorney and former chairman of the commission who has represented environmentalists and developers in front of the panel, said the move to replace Lester was reminiscent of a fight two decades ago over Douglas. The politically connected Douglas fought back that attempt in 1996, aided by hundreds of environmentalists and other supporters who came to his defense at a public hearing after Republicans on the commission, including then-Gov. Pete Wilson's appointees, had moved to oust him.

"I'm troubled by the direction of the commission if a professional like Charles Lester is fired and replaced by a political hack," Nutter said Wednesday.

Conservationists say they have been disturbed by decisions the panel has made in recent years in favor of what they see as environmentally damaging projects. In December, the panel approved a scaled-back version of U2 guitarist The Edge's proposal to build five homes on an undeveloped ridge over Malibu. Four years earlier, the late director Douglas had called the project "one of the three worst projects that I've seen in terms of environmental devastation."

Last October the panel approved a massive sand-replenishment project to protect multimillion dollar homes on Malibu's Broad Beach, backing off provisions intended to protect public access if the constructed dunes succumb to coastal erosion. In 2014 the commission OKd a massive hotel and condominium resort on 40 acres of environmentally sensitive sand dunes on the fast-eroding shoreline of Monterey Bay following a years-long legal fight with a developer.

In the future, the commission is expected to weigh in on other high-profile projects, among them a proposal to build more than 1,000 new homes at Newport Banning Ranch on the largest remaining piece of undeveloped land along the Orange County coast.

Former Commissioner Steve Blank, who resigned in 2013 with a speech warning that the panel was in danger of being captured by the interests it regulates, said Wednesday that "for 40 years we've managed to preserve the California coast so it doesn't look like the Jersey Shore."

Blank said that accomplishment is largely due to the commission's steadfast commitment to carrying out the 1976 Coastal Act, which Gov. Brown signed into law during his first term.

So it's ironic that 40 years later, Brown's appointees could have a hand in undoing that legacy, Blank said. "These are commissioners whose interests are not aligned with those of 40 million people; they're aligned with very narrow interests of developers."

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 21, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Tug of war over coast comes to a head - Pro-development commissioners aim to fire executive director." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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