A crowd of 500 filled the Rancho La Patera & Stow House grounds on June 12 for food, drink, and the chance to bid on hundreds of auction items — from bottles of fine wine to a Van Morrison concert in Ireland — at a fundraiser hosted by Santa Barbara’s Environmental Defense Center (EDC). The afternoon ended with EDC’s presentation of its 2016 Environmental Hero award to Dr. Charles Lester, who on February 10 was fired from his position as executive director of the California Coastal Commission after a contentious 12-hour public hearing. During that hearing, Lester was praised as an even-keeled and highly effective defender of the coast and consummate soldier for California’s landmark Coastal Act, one of the nation’s toothiest conservation laws.
“Today there are fewer and fewer people who can look beyond self interest and act in the public good,” Lester said during his acceptance speech, before rattling off “huge challenges” faced by the Coastal Commission in the coming decades, including climate change, sea level rise, drought, desalination, plastic pollution, and maintaining public access to the Golden State’s 1,100 miles of coastline.
Since March 1, Lester has been directing the Coastal Commission’s Climate Change Program, a position he was eligible for under California’s civil service “right of return” laws, according to a Coastal Commission spokesperson. Lester was also the focus of a public statement made by commissioner Wendy Mitchell at the June 9 hearing in Santa Barbara. After praising Lester’s win of the Save Our Shores Ocean Hero of the Year award last week, Mitchell lamented his comments in the accompanying Santa Cruz Sentinel article, in which he said the only details he knows of his February dismissal are those he reads about in the papers. Mitchell called that notion “completely inaccurate,” and that “he knows differently,” explaining that commissioners had reviewed Lester’s performance with him five times over the past three years.
While some commissioners on February 10 cited concerns with Lester’s leadership and communication skills, and a lack of staff diversity, the public’s pervasive narrative maintained that private meetings between commissioners and lobbyists for coastal development had created an ex parte cottage industry that wanted Lester gone. Commissioners are now facing SB 1190, a bill advancing through the state legislature that would ban such private meetings. On May 12 the commission voted 6-5 in support of the legislation.
Lester’s personnel file and other related documents are the focus of a Public Records Act lawsuit filed by the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Grassroots Coalition on February 23. The complaint, which names Lester and 18 sitting and alternate commissioners as defendants, argues that because Lester opted to hold his dismissal hearing at a public forum, the agency ought to release communications related to his performance and firing.