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Coastal Commission Saga Ends in Defeat

CA Coastal Commission fires executive director Charles Lester

After a nearly 12-hour-long hearing in Morro Bay, CA, the California Coastal Commission voted 7-5 to fire its Executive Director Charles Lester. This came on the heels of more than six hours of public speaking in support of Lester, and is greatly disappointing to the dozens of environmental groups that had rallied behind Lester, fearing that pro-business development lobbyists were behind his potential ouster.

Lester’s chief role has been to enforce the Coastal Act, legislation that protects the California coast from overdevelopment and which fights for public access.

“I think this is a potentially dire situation,” said Jennifer Savage, California Policy Manager for the Surfrider Foundation immediately after the vote. “For 40 years, the CCC has been operating in a way that ensures that the Coastal Act is first and foremost being defended. If the Commissioners can remove the person most responsible for the enforcing the Coastal Act, though he’s been doing such a good job, what message does that send?”

The concerned oceangoing masses descended on sleepy Morro Bay this morning, as an estimated 1,000 people showed up to the Morro Bay Community Center to protest the planned ouster of Lester. A large, enthusiastic crowd—as you might guess, not a typical sighting at a CCC meeting—waved signs and banners in support of Lester. Speakers like longtime surfer/environmental advocate Mark Massara, and Serge Dedina, the Mayor of Imperial Beach and founder of WildCOAST, spoke in favor of the director, and warned against the encroachment of big development interests on the California coastline.

Just minutes into the meeting, the Commissioners voted to retire to a private, closed-door session to decide on how to proceed with Lester’s fate. The audience was not happy with the secrecy and reacted with boos and furious sign shaking. “Basically, they just threw a rock at the hornet’s nest,” said Sustainable Surf’s Michael Stewart. “The Commissioners aren’t getting out of this unscathed, no matter what decision they make.”

After Lester gave a thorough walkthrough of the successes of the CCC under his leadership, basically poking holes in the vague criticisms cited as reason he should be fired—lack of transparency, slowing down the approvals process of permit applications, for example—the floor was opened for public comment. And boy, did they. For hours, everyone from local concerned citizens, to minority rights activists, to nonprofit environmental groups, to the Surfrider Foundation, to former CIA Director Leon Panetta, of all people, either spoke in support of Lester or sent in letters praising his work.

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Mark Massara, Surfing Attorneys Association Founder, pumps up the crowd. Photo: Sustainable Surf

After a full day of public testimony praising Lester, the Commission retreated behind closed doors once again—and again to boos from the still-bustling crowd—to decide Lester’s fate. In the end, seven Commissioners—Martha McClure, Mark Vargas, Erik Howell, Roberto Uranga, Effie Turnbull-Sanders, Wendy Mitchell, and Olga Diaz—voted to end Lester’s term as director. McClure, Vargas, Howell, Turnbull-Sanders, and Mitchell all had more anti-conservation votes than pro-conservation votes on CCC cases last year, according to Surfrider.

“Unfortunately, this really validates the concerns that we’ve had since we heard about [the Commission’s plan to fire Lester],” Savage said. “And those are that this action was politically motivated and an example of the Commission not representing the people of California.”

"I'm disappointed in the vote," Lester said after the conclusion of the hearing. "It's been a privilege to serve the commission for the past four-and-a-half years. If there is a silver lining, I've been energized by all the people who came together on this."

And regardless of what happens next, there are likely tens of thousands of concerned, voting Californians who are now more aware than ever of the importance of the Coastal Act.

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Now-former Executive Director of the CCC, Charles Lester. Photo: Seib, LA times