PD Editorial: End the coup at the California Coastal Commission

Imagine a nuclear power plant on Bodega Head or 5,000 homes on the coastal bluffs south of the Gualala River or a locked gate blocking the path to your favorite spot on California’s coast.

From grass-roots efforts here in Sonoma County that halted construction of the nuclear plant and checked ambitions for The Sea Ranch, it’s a straight path to the California Coastal Conservation Initiative in 1972 and formation of the California Coastal Commission four years later.

The commission is a one-of-a-kind public agency, charged with stewardship of the Golden State’s defining asset and ensuring coastal access for all.

Its 40-year history is rich with conflicts over resorts and pipelines, retreats for rock stars and movie actors and gated communities for those able to afford some of the priciest real estate in the world. The commission also battles property owners who don’t want to share the public beaches behind their dream homes.

Now, the commission is faced with a coup.

When it meets in Morro Bay, beginning Wednesday, the agenda includes the dismissal of Charles Lester, a long-time commission staffer and its executive director since 2011.

Lester’s antagonists haven’t stepped forward, though news accounts point to the four commissioners appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown - Effie Turnbull-Sanders, Wendy Mitchell, Martha McClure and Erik Howell - all of whom are believed to favor a friendlier approach to coastal development plans.

The bill of particulars is, to put it mildly, vague. Unnamed critics have pointed at Lester’s low-key management style and the decision to forgo a national search before promoting him to succeed the charismatic Peter Douglas, who led the commission for a quarter-century and recommended his successor.

Lester’s critics may finally be flushed into the open because he declined to resign during a closed-door meeting last year, opting instead to exercise his right to this week’s public hearing on his performance.

Lester’s supporters say he is an honest, ethical leader who is expert in state coastal law and even-handed in his approach. Unlike the critics, Lester’s supporters haven’t been shy about identifying themselves. The list includes major environmental groups, state and local elected officials representing coastal districts and a bipartisan collection of former coastal commissioners.

“I don’t think it’s a management thing. I don’t think it’s a management-style thing,” said Mike Reilly, a former Sonoma County supervisor who served on the commission for 12 years. “I think it cuts to the heart of the Coastal Act and the independence of the staff.”

Reilly is one of 35 former commissioners who signed a letter backing Lester. He believes that the governor’s appointees want less stringent restrictions on coastal development and think that they would get them “with a political appointment, rather than a professional, as Charles is.”

It isn’t as if Lester has been an impediment to development. As Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez noted in the Forum section a week ago, the commission rejected 26 development proposals in 2006 alone, but it has said “no” just 24 times during Lester’s five-year tenure.

Firing Lester would send the wrong message about coastal stewardship. One word from the governor would end the controversy, but he has dodged questions about Lester. If Brown truly values his environmental legacy, it’s time to send a clear message to his commissioners: End the coup or step down.

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