Thirty-five former members of the California Coastal Commission declared Monday that they oppose the effort to fire Charles Lester, the embattled executive director of the powerful land-use agency.
In a letter to commission Chairman Steve Kinsey, the group stated that Lester's termination "would significantly undermine" both the agency's work and Gov. Jerry Brown's legacy to protect California's vast coastal resources.
"Our state is facing a period of unprecedented change and challenge with a rapidly growing population and the impacts of climate change increasing threats to our coast," the former commissioners wrote. "Dr. Lester's professional leadership provides a critical steady hand at the helm during these particularly challenging times."
The correspondence is among more than 11,000 letters the commission has received from the public since the panel decided to consider Lester's firing during a closed session at its December meeting in Monterey. A spokesperson for the agency said that only two letters favor ousting the executive director.
The outpouring of support included another letter signed by 76 environmental organizations, which wrote they are "deeply concerned over the unjustified and misguided attempt currently underway to oust Dr. Lester."
The move to terminate the executive director has touched off a fierce debate over whether it is motivated by a pro-development faction on the commission or legitimate questions about his ability to run the agency.
The 12-member commission wields broad authority over land use along 1,100 miles of shoreline that includes some of the most valuable real estate in the country. The panel was established by voters in 1972 to prevent overdevelopment of the coast, protect the environment and safeguard public access. It was made permanent by the California Coastal Act of 1976.
Lester, a low-key but conservation-minded attorney who was unanimously approved to head the agency in 2011, received written notice Jan. 14 that the commission "will consider whether to dismiss you."
The panel gave him the option of resigning or attending a public hearing to weigh his future. He chose the hearing — part of a meeting scheduled for Feb. 10 in Morro Bay — which ensures that the tug of war over his fate will become the subject of public debate.
Sources, who requested anonymity, said the effort to oust Lester is being led by pro-development members of the panel, including Brown's four appointees: Effie Turnbull-Sanders, Wendy Mitchell, Martha McClure and Erik Howell.
Kinsey, the commission chairman, declined to discuss the letter from the former commissioners. Like other members of the panel, Kinsey says Lester's situation is a confidential personnel matter under state law.
The letter was signed by a mix of Democrats and Republicans who have served as alternate commissioners, regional commissioners and state commissioners for the last 40 years. Among them are Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach); former Santa Barbara City Councilman Dan Secord, a Republican; Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian (R-San Luis Obispo); and former Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara).
"The attempt to dislodge and terminate Dr. Lester is ill-advised," said Secord, who voted for Lester's appointment as executive director. "He has done a good job. I have not seen anything yet that would speak to the contrary.... No one has been able to tell me why they want to throw Charles Lester under the bus."
The letter stated that Lester has worked diligently to uphold the California Coastal Act and serve the interests of all Californians. It praised Brown's "visionary leadership" for signing the act during his first term in office and noted that the commission's independence has served citizens and the state's $40-billion-plus coastal economy well for decades.
Former Commissioner Mel Nutter, a Long Beach attorney who organized the group along with Nava, said the letter's signers are concerned about the direction of the commission and perceive that something is going on far more significant than who was going to be executive director.
"The agency is supposed to be a quasi-judicial body with certain legal responsibilities, but that isn't always reflected in the way some commissioners do their business." Nutter said. "There has been a tendency for there to be less careful scrutiny of proposals that come before the commission."