Protecting California’s Coast Requires a Firm Hand, not Politics

Removing Charles Lester as Coastal Commission Chief Is Ill-Advised

We had the pleasure of serving on the California Coastal Commission for several overlapping years of the Peter Douglas era and the appointment of Charles Lester, PhD, his unanimously chosen successor, as executive director. In 2015-16, some of the commissioners appointed by Governor Brown have made a move to replace Charles Lester. Opposition to his precipitous replacement is what this opinion is about.

Appointments to the Coastal Commission are highly sought after. Three entities get four appointments each: The governor gets four, the president pro tem of the Senate gets four, and the Speaker of the Assembly gets four. Tension between these powerful entities gets played out in the appointments. Phone calls from your appointing authority will concentrate your mind like few other things.

Peter, for the record, was there at the inception of the Coastal Commission. He probably wrote most of the Coastal Act, which was voted in by the people and signed by Governor Brown, in his first iteration, 40 years ago. Peter was executive director for 25 years.

He was an environmental street fighter, the leading defender of the faith for coastal access, endangered species, and habitat. He made sure all the staff shared the same unshakable faith that they were the protectors of the interests of all Californians.

Peter Douglas was virtually irreplaceable. Before he passed away, he recommended Dr. Lester as his replacement, and the commission agreed. We, and almost every commissioner who’s worked with Charles, think he does a good job.

As always, the commissioners have reviewed Dr. Lester’s work annually in closed session from 2012 through 2015. Those results are not shared, except that in 2015, the Coastal Commission chair, Supervisor Steve Kinsey from Marin County, said that Lester was offered a resignation or a public hearing. We’re pleased that the public hearing was selected so that Dr. Lester’s supporters can help defeat this ill-advised lynching.

The amount of money at stake near the California coast is overwhelming. This money can buy the best advisors, lawyers, lobbyists, and presentations anyone’s ever seen. The quality of the lawyers is outstanding. It’s rare for a project to get to the California Coastal Commission without a lobbyist coming earlier to each commissioner to explain the relevant parts of the Coastal Act that their project helps or at least doesn’t damage.

The commissioners have read and know the provisions of the Coastal Act, but lobbyists are well paid to spin their interpretation of what it means with clever presentations and full-color literature. They work hard to carefully cultivate and construct relationships with the commissioners in a way that others without deep pockets could only dream.

The amount of fiscal muscle that can be devoted to getting a project through is beyond belief, and that same muscle can be focused on any perceived weakness.

So, as a commissioner, one keeps one’s friends close and the enemies closer, pays careful attention to the appointing authority, and tries to navigate the swamp.

The executive director oversees all this, manages a $16 million budget, tries to recruit and retain high-quality environmental specialists, obeys the law, and tries to be cordial with everyone. It’s not for the faint of heart.

We believe that Charles Lester was properly trained, educated, and experienced; he is a capable executive director. We believe that replacement, done this way, may lead to the appointment of a political hack unlikely to have the courage and backbone required to conduct this office.

We hope that Chairperson Kinsey and the majority of the commissioners agree.

To a large extent, the future of the coast and its environment are at stake here, and we believe that Charles Lester has the courage and commitment to remain the executive director of the California Coastal Commission.


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