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Was California's Coastline Just Thrown Under the Bus?

After a public hearing attended by hundreds that ran late into the night and was dominated by an outcry of public support for California Coastal Commission Executive Director Charles Lester, the Commission decided to remove Lester from his position anyway, which could mean dramatic change is coming to the California coastline. The CCC is responsible for approving and guiding development and access along the state's coasts, which belong to the public, and as the LA Times puts it, "many speakers warned that replacing Lester would send a powerful signal to staff to be more accommodating to development." The 7 to 5 vote came a little after 9 pm last night, after seven hours of public testimony in Morro Bay.

The commissioners, who voted in a closed-door meeting to fire Lester, say that the ouster was a result of problems with the way he does his job, including poor communication with commissioners on important matters and a lack of diversity on his staff. But Lester supporters maintain his firing could create an opportunity for a more development-friendly director to fill the void; even the denial by the Commission's chairman suggests positive feelings about increased development along the coast, using the phrasing that the firing was not "an issue of greater flexibility for development."

Commissioners say that the narrative of Lester being fired to move the agency in a more development-oriented direction is just plain wrong. "It is not about developers and their consultants. We have been terribly mischaracterized as developer hacks," says Vice Chair Dayna Bochco, who voted against firing Lester. But the commissioners never presented their case to the public, so the public argued what they knew, which is that Lester has been a good steward of the coast.

As for the seemingly shady secret discussion and vote, commissioners say they voted behind closed doors over Lester's future at the agency because they were "bound by law to honor Lester's right to privacy," in order to discuss nearly 100 pages of notes from past performance reviews that Lester did not waive his privacy rights for. But the agency's chief counsel advised them that they were "free to discuss any current issues involving Lester's performance because he had chosen a public hearing to defend himself."

The Times has outraged quotes over Lester's firing from the Center for Biological Diversity and Heal the Bay, and notes that two commissioners praised Lester's "long list of achievements, including the development of a strategic plan for the agency, efforts to address sea level rise, increasing the budget by $3 million and good cooperation with local governments." California Assembly Speaker Toni G. Atkins threw her own appointees under the bus, tweeting "Let me apologize to the public. I truly thought my appointees would be better stewards of the coast."

Though both his opposition and supporters were riled up, Lester seemed to be the calmest of anyone at the hearing. He said that since the complaints he'd heard of were organizational, he just assumed it was something that could be worked on over time. "I don't know, maybe they just thought I was too independent." After the voting results were announced, his supporters cried or were visibly outraged. "Several commissioners who voted against Lester were escorted out of the meeting by law enforcement without explaining their votes," says the Times.

But though he passionately defended his work for the CCC, after he was fired, Lester simply told all in attendance, "It's been a privilege to serve the commission for the past 4½ years. If there is a silver lining, I've been energized by all the people who came together on this."

Lester has held his position with the CCC since 2011. His removal from the executive director seat is active immediately; the CCC's senior Deputy Director Jack Ainsworth will be in charge until the commission finds an interim replacement, who will eventually be replaced by a permanent executive director. This is the first time anyone holding this CCC position has been fired from it. As Kinsey says, though, "The challenge we face now is to rebuild trust and to illustrate through our actions that we will live up to the ideals of the Coastal Act."
· Firing of Coastal Commission chief Charles Lester leaves deep divisions [LAT]
· Morro Bay: Coastal Commission fires popular executive director [AP]
· Will the Future of the California Coast Be For the People or For the Big Developers? [Curbed LA]