California Coastal Commission Fires Director, Stirs Controversy

Published April 15, 2016

In a controversial move, the California Coastal Commission (CCC), which controls development along 1,100 miles of the state’s coast, removed CCC Executive Director Charles Lester from his position in the government organization’s leadership.

On February 10, CCC members voted 7–5 to fire Lester, despite hundreds of supporters gathered at the hearing in opposition to the move. CCC is made up of 12 voting and three non-voting commissioners; members are appointed by the governor, Senate Rules Committee, and the speaker of the Assembly.

CCC says Lester was dismissed because he failed to provide information to commissioners, had criticized developers’ legitimate projects, and, most notably, did not take steps to ensure the coastline was accessible to people of all income levels—which, according to the panel, could have been improved by increasing the number of affordable hotels near the coastline.

CCC Chairman Steve Kinsey, one of the five who voted against firing Lester, cited leadership shortfalls as the reason for his dismissal.

“Dr. Lester was an at-will employee and the only member of the 145-person staff who reported to [CCC]. His dismissal [was] related to leadership qualities rather than policy differences,” said Kinsey. “Key concerns … involved his communication with commissioners and other state agencies, oversight of key employees under his management, and progress on key [CCC] priorities, such as achieving a more diverse workforce, completing a publicly trackable permit data base, and revisions to our low-cost lodging policy.”

James Burling, director of litigation at the Pacific Legal Foundation, says Lester was hand-picked by his predecessor Peter Douglas, who was CCC’s longest-serving executive director. Burling says Douglas wielded a lot of power and was an “unrepentant enemy” of citizens’ private property rights.

“[Douglas had] a habit of giving speeches criticizing Pacific Legal Foundation for its work defending private property against, in his words, the better ‘communitarian’ instincts of the California people,” Burling said.

“Lester had the same beliefs as his mentor, but not the force of personality,” said Burling. “But he continued to run the CCC in the same imperious manner—by pretty much treating the commissioners like minor annoyances.”

Burling says Douglas was widely supported around the state, which made it easier for him to get away with ignoring requests from commissioners, not providing them with important information, and wielding a significant amount of power. Commissioners feared there would be “political Hell” to pay if they tried to unseat him. The same was not true of Lester, says Burling.

 “When Lester tried to treat the commissioners similarly, the commissioners decided they had enough,” said Burling. “Lester just didn’t have the political juice to survive.”

Power, Not Development

Many California media outlets around the state reported CCC fired Lester because it wants to allow more development of coastal areas, but Burling says the real reason for the move is CCC wants to shift power back to the state’s commissioners.

“The idea Lester was fired because the commissioners wanted more coastal development is not true, but it makes a convenient story for the press,” Burling said. “But if spinning a story like this can raise contributions for [environmental] groups, [who can now say,] ‘Send us money now because we need it today more than ever to protect the coast,’ then why not create yet another crisis?”

Kinsey says CCC did not fire Lester to liberalize coastal development.

“The record proves that accusation incorrect,” said Kinsey. “Over 95 percent of permits reviewed by the Commission were approved without a change in the staff recommendations … rarely has the Commission significantly reversed a staff recommendation.

“The primary reason media outlets raised the possibility that the true intention of the change was focused on allowing more development is that a coalition of coastal advocate organizations forcefully promoted that theory to gain widespread public support for Dr. Lester,” Kinsey said.

As far as coastal development goes, Burling says Lester’s dismissal is inconsequential.

“Unfortunately, I don’t see that changing any time soon,” Burling said. “Will the CCC approve permits it once would have denied, [or] will the CCC stop demanding extortionate demands for the permits it does approve? Why not ask me if psychedelic California pigs will grow wings and fly along the coast guarding beachgoers from tsunamis? I’ll believe it if I see it.”

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) from Tampa, Florida.