A packed hearing in Morro Bay Wednesday to determine the fate of the California Coastal Commission’s Executive Director Charles Lester ended with a 7-5 vote to oust Lester, after weeks of rumors that he would be removed from his post.
The motion was decided after a nearly 12 hour meeting that included nearly six hours of public comment and ended with those remaining inside the Morro Bay Community Center Auditorium giving Lester a standing ovation after his final remarks before the commission.
“Obviously I’m disappointed in the vote, but I do want to say that it’s been a privilege to serve the commission as the executive director for the last four and half years,” Lester said. “I’ve worked hard and accomplished a lot, and hopefully that work will continue on into the future.”
Assemblymember Patrick O' Donnell (D-Long Beach) voiced his disappointment in a statement issued Friday morning, echoing concerns stated by Congressman Alan Lowenthal and many individuals expressing their opinions via public comment.
“I am deeply disappointed by the Coastal Commission’s decision to fire Dr. Charles Lester. His termination represents a tremendous loss for California’s majestic coastline," said O'Donnell in the statement. "Open access to our state’s beautiful beaches and wetlands depends upon proper enforcement of the Coastal Act. As an Assemblymember representing a coastal district, I want to thank all the individuals who engaged and stood with Dr. Lester and our environment.”
The coastal commission is an independent, quasi-state agency, with 12 voting members and three non-voting members. Their task it is to protect, conserve, restore and enhance the California coastline. The seven commissioners voting in favor of the motion to remove Lester from his post were Olga Diaz, Erik Howell, Martha McClure, Wendy Mitchell, Effie Turnbull-Sanders, Mark Vargas and Long Beach City Councilman Roberto Uranga, who was appointed to the commission in March of last year.
Before the commission adjourned to closed session, Uranga addressed the notion that this move wasn’t based on an evaluation, but instead was a part of a coup to unseat someone the public viewed as protector of the environment.
According to other commissioner’s comments that preceded Uranga, the reason why the commission moved to dismiss Lester was for an overall lack of communication and “gag order” that was placed on the commissioners in regard to the media. Uranga joined Vargas and others in denouncing the media coverage leading up to Wednesday’s hearing.
“It’s been very unfair, I have to agree with some of the comments about the media and its perception of transparency and of a ‘coup’” Uranga said. “A coup of what? The last time I defined coup it was a coup of a government or an individual and we’re not doing that. What we’re doing is evaluating the performance of an executive director based on years of evaluations and observation.”
Prior to Wednesday’s hearing that drew hundreds of supporters holding signs reading “More Lester” and “I Support Charles”, and thousands more tuned into a live stream of the meeting, the commission received over 14,000 letters demanding that the move to fire Lester be halted. Lester was unanimously appointed to the position in September 2011 but has faced a recent push from a collection of commissioners who are accused of leading a “coup” to displace Lester.
Lester addressed the commission in a letter drafted last week, in which he listed the commission’s accomplishments during his tenure and expressed his desire to continue on as its executive director. Before the the commission convened to closed session to decide how the proceedings would unfold, Lester addressed those who came to speak in his defense.
“When I decided to exercise my right to this hearing, I could not imagine such an overwhelming outpouring of support, and for that I am deeply, deeply humbled,” Lester said. “This occasion reminds us, though, how vitally important the California coast is to all of us.”
The embattled director was the focus of hours of public testimony supporting his continuance as head of the commission that dragged the commission’s deliberations into the late evening hours. He was heralded by members of the public as a protector of the California coast, and as much of a resource to the state as its picturesque shoreline. Speaker after speaker pleaded with the commission to make their conversation public, rather than deciding Lester’s fate behind closed doors.
Among those in attendance to voice those messages were representatives and members of over 70 environmental groups and 35 former commissioners. Lester also received support in written correspondences from O’Donnell and Lowenthal.
"As an Assemblymember representing a coastal district, I am proud to stand with my colleagues in support of our coastline and Dr. Charles Lester,” O’Donnell said in a statement. “I believe replacing Dr. Lester to make the Commission more open to the interests of lobbyists and developers would severely undermine its primary mission to protect our treasured coasts for future generations.”
Lowenthal repeated those concerns, stating on his website that removing Lester could potentially challenge the commission's legacy, validity and its non-partisan nature. In a letter warning the commission of the ramifications of a potential vote to fire Lester, Lowenthal added that the main tenets of the CCC is to uphold and protect the California coastline, something that he said Lester had done since 2011.
“We are concerned that firing the Executive Director of the Coastal Commission will threaten the non-partisan nature of the Commission’s work and endanger the very laws that have been so successfully upheld over the past decades,” Lowenthal wrote. “We are concerned about any actions that would politicize Commission staff and subsequently risk the legacy and validity of the Commission. We urge you to keep these concerns in mind when the Commission meets on February 10th.”
However, before the commission eventually voted to take the final decision behind closed doors, several members of the commission chided the media for a “misleading narrative” that stated Lester represented the good, and the group of commissioners looking to unseat him from his director position were the evil controlled by private interests that sought to develop the California coast with immunity. Instead, they characterized the call for his dismissal as purely tied to his performance as a leader and his failure to properly communicate basic facts and policies with the rest of the commission.
"Some of you now are convinced that we are behind a sinister plot to betray everything we've sworn to protect," Vargas said. "This is not a decision that we've come to rashly or suddenly, but after years of review with the executive director. The deliberation is made harder because of the current media campaign that completely mischaracterizes the issue at hand and mislead the public."
The closing remarks by Lester ended the marathon day that unanimously characterized him as an honest and diligent defender of the environment and of the state’s precious coast. Lester said that it was a privilege to serve the commission for the last four and a half years, calling the amount of engagement on display Wednesday afternoon a “silver lining” that had energized him before the crowd's mixture of applause and anger drowned out the commission’s closing gavel.
Above, left: Screenshot of Dr. Charles Lester during yesterday's California Coastal Commission hearing, which ended in his firing.
This story was updated at 11:17AM with an official comment from Assemblymember Patrick O'Donnell.