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California

Here’s why the Coastal Commission director’s ouster didn’t upset Jerry Brown

Former Coastal Commission chief Charles Lester
Charles Lester at the Coastal Commission meeting on Feb. 10, when he was fired as executive director.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Jerry Brown has insisted that he played no role in the California Coastal Commission’s decision in February to fire Executive Director Charles Lester.

“This was a personnel matter involving an independent commission that was initiated and decided without any involvement from our office,” Brown spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said a few days after Lester’s dismissal.

Almost five years ago, however, Brown’s office did express concerns about Lester’s hiring. Immediately after the commission voted unanimously to promote Lester to the top job, Brown’s administration told commission members about its unhappiness, sources familiar with matter told The Times.

Members of the governor’s appointments staff, as well as representatives of then-state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), met with then-commission Chairwoman Mary Shallenberger about a week after the promotion.

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“They made it clear they were very angry about the selection process and the fact that they were not conferred with before we hired Charles Lester,” Shallenberger recalled when asked about the meeting.

Lester, now 53, was hired in September 2011 to replace the late Peter Douglas, the agency’s longtime executive director, who retired because of illness. During two closed sessions, commissioners discussed and rejected a national search for prospects before appointing Lester.

Lester “was an outstanding candidate for the position,” William A. Burke, a coastal commissioner from 2002 to 2012, recalled in an interview. “If you were to go and do a national search, where would you find someone with his knowledge of the California Coastal Act and two decades of experience with the commission? I trusted him.”

Brown spokesman Evan Westrup, asked recently about the governor’s concerns about Lester’s appointment, said the commission had been wrong to not contact the administration about his hiring.

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Asked whether the administration’s concerns over the hiring played a role in his firing, Westrup said in an email: “Generally, basic communication between and amongst entities makes government run better. However, that doesn’t mean we’re making decisions for independent boards and commissions.”

The governor and the leaders of the Assembly and Senate have the power to appoint four coastal commissioners each but no authority to pick the executive director, who presides over an agency created four decades ago to approve land uses, provide access and protect the environment along California’s 1,100-mile coastline.

Lester served as executive director until the commission meeting in Morro Bay on Feb 10. The panel voted 7 to 5 to fire him despite overwhelming support from hundreds of members of the public, environmental groups, 35 former coastal commissioners and state legislators.

Some of his supporters contended that the true motive for the firing was to force agency staff to be friendlier to coastal development.

The four commissioners who serve at the pleasure of Brown approved the ouster, prompting demands from Lester’s supporters for an explanation from the governor. The commissioners denied that the decision was made to allow for more coastal development.

Neither Steinberg, who is running for mayor of Sacramento, nor former members of his Senate staff who met with Shallenberger could be reached for comment despite repeated efforts.

One of the governor’s appointees on the panel is Wendy Mitchell, a government affairs consultant who voted to hire Lester.

According to a former commission staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, two years after Lester was hired, Mitchell repeated the concerns Brown and Steinberg had voiced.

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Last month, Mitchell told The Times that she had been concerned, even upset, about the lack of a national search five years ago and the commission’s failure to confer with the governor’s office. But she said those issues played no role in her decision to fire Lester.

The reason was his performance, she said.

She also said Brown has never contacted her about any commission matter.

However, during a commission meeting on Dec. 10, Mitchell said from the dais that the governor had asked her about the status of a well-known, highly controversial project: the 10-year effort by David “The Edge” Evans, guitarist for the rock band U2, to build five homes in the Santa Monica Mountains. The commission approved the project that day.

Asked whether those public comments were consistent with her statement about her lack of contact with the governor, Mitchell said Brown had asked her about the Santa Monica Mountains proposal after he approached her at a social function in mid-2011. She didn’t consider that a formal discussion.

In addition to Mitchell, Brown appointees Erik Howell, Martha McClure and Effie Turnbull-Sanders along with Roberto Uranga, Mark Vargas and alternate Olga Diaz voted to fire Lester.

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Voting no were Shallenberger, Chairman Steve Kinsey, Vice Chairwoman Dayna Bochco, Carole Groom and Mary Luevano.

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Howell said he had not heard about the concerns over Lester expressed by Brown and Steinberg five years ago. But even if he had, they were not relevant, he said.

“That’s ancient history,” he said. “It has nothing to do with where we are today. We need to look forward to the future with a new executive director.”

Mitchell and other commissioners have said Lester lacked leadership, did not communicate well with the commission, was not accountable to them or the public, and failed to hire enough ethnic minorities.

They have offered few specifics, saying the dismissal was a confidential matter, although the agency’s attorney said they were free to speak about many aspects of his performance.

Mitchell said she was unhappy that her telephone calls were not being returned by Lester but that the Surfrider Foundation and other environmental groups had a scheduled monthly conference call with the executive director.

She also mentioned that for five years the commission has lacked a computerized docketing system that would let the public check on the status of projects awaiting coastal development permits. Installation of the system began during Lester’s term and has yet to be completed.

In Lester’s defense, he has said some commissioners began to intrude more and more into what were traditionally staff-managed affairs, including new hires, agendas, budgets and meeting locations. They also wanted agency employees to be more responsive to them than in the past.

Lester’s record includes a program to address sea level rise, increased recruiting of minorities, streamlined procedures to reduce a backlog of permit applications for coastal development and securing about $8 million in additional funding for planning and for hiring more staff.

A commission report says that minorities make up 29% of the staff, more than that of some other state agencies, and that up to 38% of new hires in late 2015 were nonwhite.

“The real diversity issue does not lie with the staff,” said Burke, who is African American. “There were no minorities submitting applications for building projects on the coast during my years on the commission. There were zero applications by blacks, zero applications by Latinos and zero applications by Asians.”

Like other current and former commissioners, Burke said he had no problem with Lester.

“If I was still on the commission,” he said, “I would not have fired him.”

dan.weikel@latimes.com

Twitter: @LADeadline16

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