Coastal Commission votes 7-5 to dismiss Charles Lester

By Aaron Kinney,

In a formidable display of solidarity, hundreds of environmentalists packed a Central Coast auditorium Wednesday in a bid to convince the California Coastal Commission not to fire Executive Director Charles Lester but the commissioners did just that in a 7-5 vote behind closed doors.

Dozens of people addressed the 12 voting members of the commission during a marathon meeting in the Morro Bay Community Center auditorium. Lester supporters ranged from coastal advocates and elected officials to a senior executive with Pebble Beach Resorts in Monterey County. Some speakers accused commissioners of seeking to undermine the independence of the commission’s 163-person staff to benefit coastal developers.

“This hearing is not about Charles’ performance “” it’s about yours,” said Stefanie Sekich-Quinn, coastal preservation manager for the Surfrider Foundation. “This hearing is about your priorities for the coast and what the direction of this commission looks like.”

The commissioners went into closed session shortly before 8 p.m. and did not come to a decision until 9:20 p.m.. Before leaving the dais, they rejected the notion that Lester’s dismissal would damage coastal protection, and several commissioners lashed out at the media for portraying Lester’s ouster as a struggle between pro- and anti-development forces.

“Some of you now are convinced that we are behind a sinister plot to betray everything we’ve sworn to protect,” Commissioner Mark Vargas said. “This is not a decision we come to rashly or suddenly but after years of review with the executive director.”

Commissioners criticized Lester and his staff on several grounds. Some said the staff lacked ethnic diversity. Others claimed the staff did a poor job communicating with coastal development applicants and sharing information with commissioners.

At the beginning of the meeting, Lester delivered an impassioned defense of his job.

“I understand how this organization works, bottom to top,” said Lester, whose agency oversees development along 1,100 miles of the California coast. “The work of the commission speaks to who I am and who I strive to be.”

Public support for Lester has been almost universal since the commission announced in late January it would consider removing him. Myriad environmental groups and more than 10 members of Congress, 18 state legislators and 35 former coastal commissioners lobbied the commission to retain the executive director, who took the post in 2011.

About 95 percent of the agency’s staff signed a letter praising Lester as “an exceptional and dedicated” leader.

Even Pebble Beach Co. defended Lester. A company executive read a letter from CEO William Perocchi that credited Lester for helping to establish a cooperate and respectful relationship between the commission and luxury golf resorts. Perocchi called Lester “fair, pragmatic, creative, open and reasonable.”

The following information was received from Steve Aceti of the California Coastal Coalition which does not get involved in Coastal Commission internal matters and is neutral regarding Dr. Lester’s employment.

The hearing on this issue, including two closed sessions, lasted about 12 hours. During the hearing, elected officials, former coastal commissioners and NGOs put intense pressure on commissioners to retain Dr. Lester, claiming that there was no evidence or reasons given for Lester’s firing, but the commissioners were advised by their chief counsel that they could not discuss Lester’s performance reviews in public (thus, requiring that the discussion about Lester’s future be held in closed session). Lester chose a public hearing rather than resign, but he did not waive confidentially when it came to his performance reviews.

As it turns out, a majority of commissioners had reasons for wanting to fire Lester that had nothing to do with a “coup” or a desire to be more pro-development as had been reported in the press. Some commissioners voiced concerns that the NGOs that ran the campaign to protect Dr. Lester gave false narratives to the press about why the commission was going to consider firing Lester.

Constrained by confidentially laws, some commissioners discussed in general terms their concerns about Lester’s management style, delays in processing applications and appeals, lack of transparency as to what staff is doing, not providing commissioners with an annual budget, a lack of staff diversity and giving commissioners reams of new staff reports on the eve of a commission meeting.

Deputy Director Jack Ainsworth will be the interim executive director.