When you step out onto the Ellwood Mesa and enjoy the abundant public access to the beach, or when you drive north of Santa Barbara and marvel at the unmatched, open views of the Gaviota coast, you are in fact enjoying the work of the professional staff who work at the California Coastal Commission. This scrappy band of agency staff are unsung heroes of coastal protection, doing the hard work of analyzing projects and advising the commission how to best protect these precious resources for current and future generations, despite relentless, powerful pressure to exploit and privatize them. In an age where many regulatory agencies can appear to have been captured by the industry they oversee, the Coastal Commission is a shining example of truly independent, science-based environmental policy and decision making.
This year marks the Coastal Commission’s 40th anniversary, but today, instead of celebrating one of California’s best ideas, we are witnessing an attempt to disempower and intimidate a remarkable team of public servants who work for the benefit of all of us. At this Wednesday’s meeting in Morro Bay, some coastal commissioners have asked to hold a vote to try and fire the Commission’s executive director, Charles Lester. If they succeed, this will have a chilling effect on the agency’s work for a generation to come, perhaps forever.
This backroom effort was just uncovered after Lester, who had been told to resign quietly or be terminated, opted instead to take advantage of his legal right to demand a public hearing. Commissioners have given no reason for Dr. Lester’s dismissal. Small wonder. His accomplishments during four and a half years at the helm have been most impressive: The agency’s first strategic plan, 80 percent of which is complete or underway, includes new legal authority to fine those who block public access; a $3 million budget augmentation; increased cooperation with cities and counties; comprehensive policy guidance to local governments planning for sea level rise; and substantially reduced processing times for appeals, permits, and plans.
Sadly, what we are witnessing today is not the first politically motivated attack on Commission staff. Back in 1996, a number of commissioners mounted a similar effort against Lester’s predecessor, the legendary coastal advocate Peter Douglas. Douglas, who cowrote Prop. 20, the state ballot initiative that established the Coastal Commission, and then helped write the Coastal Act itself, was long a target of pro-development interests, frustrated by the Coastal Act’s effectiveness at doing exactly what voters asked: preserving coastal resources for future generations.
Fortunately, public outrage and action stopped that effort in its tracks, but few are surprised to see this tactic return. Now the target has been placed on Lester, who joined Commission staff in 1997, and assumed the role of executive director after Douglas’s passing in 2012. This attack is all the more frustrating as Lester has proven able and effective at overseeing Commission staff and achieving demonstrable results.
It is unclear why a block of commissioners have chosen this moment to attack the integrity of their staff leader, but hopefully there is time to once again thwart this political interference. The Commission hearing starts at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, February 10, at the Morro Bay Community Center Auditorium, 1001 Kennedy Way in Morro Bay. Please join us in supporting Dr. Lester and an independent staff, and in advocating for all discussion and deliberation on this matter to take place in public, rather than behind closed doors. If you are unable to join us in person, you can still weigh in by writing to StatusOfExecutiveDirector@coastal.ca.gov.
The Coastal Commission and an independent staff are required to uphold the Coastal Act, arguably the most protective land use law in the nation. We need both to ensure the protection of beach access, coastal views, and open space that we all depend upon. We cannot disempower and intimidate staff and still maintain our precious coast for future generations.
The late Peter Douglas coined the iconic truism, “The Coast is never saved. It is always being saved.” Sadly, it now appears that the Commission itself is in need of saving.
Owen Bailey is executive director of Santa Barbara’s Environmental Defense Center.