Charles Lester
Paul Wellman (file)

A behind-closed-doors effort to fire the executive director of the California Coastal Commission recently erupted into the spotlight as Charles Lester, who’s headed up the state agency since 2011, opted to bring the debate to a public meeting next month. Lester’s job performance is reportedly at issue, but according to former commissioners and environmental watchdogs, the proposed ousting goes all the way to Governor Jerry Brown’s office. “Developers have always tried to gain influence over the commission and its staff,” said Susan Jordan, executive director of Santa Barbara–based California Coastal Protection Network and wife of former commissioner Pedro Nava. “It’s been a constant battle since the Coastal Commission was created [40 years ago], and this latest flare-up is being led by Brown’s appointees,” all four of whom ​— ​Erik Howell, Effie Turnbull Sanders, Wendy Mitchell, and Martha McClure ​— ​score poorly in terms of conservation-minded voting, according to the ActCoastal accountability project.

“Of all people, the governor has appointed some of the most toxic commissioners,” added former commissioner Steve Blank. Gov. Brown has yet to comment on the issue. Sitting commissioners have also declined to provide details. Commission Chair Steve Kinsey did not return calls for comment. Lester is not taking interviews but is expected to speak at the upcoming meeting.

At stake is the fate of the Golden State’s remaining undeveloped coastal acreage, Jordan said. “The Gaviota Coast as a whole would definitely be targeted more heavily by developers” if the commission’s power shifts away from the conservation traditions that have aimed to keep development in check. However, “a key thing to remember,” according to Glenn Russell, the director of Santa Barbara County’s Planning and Development department, is that local land-use policies are very strong. “I don’t see a change of leadership [at the Coastal Commission] seriously affecting that.”

“The Coastal Commission seemed politically charged all along,” said Dan Secord, a former commissioner and Santa Barbara city councilmember. “But it’s irregular and burdensome to have political differences fought out this way. They shouldn’t try to remove Lester just because he might have pissed off some developers.”

The public meeting is set for 10 a.m.

 on February 10 in Morro Bay.


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