Few fights are uglier than the ones over beauty. And what’s going on at the California Coastal Commission is one of the uglier fights in a while.
Charged with protecting and managing California’s 1,100 or so miles of spectacular coastline, the 12-member commission – perhaps the most powerful land-use body in the nation – has scheduled a Feb. 10 public hearing on whether to dismiss its executive director, Charles Lester.
The confrontation has been cast alternately as a personnel matter and a standoff between exploitative business interests and environmentalists trying to save the coast.
As with most coastal disputes, both versions are emotional, and neither quite conveys the whole story. Lester was promoted five years ago to the position after his predecessor and mentor, Peter Douglas, recommended him to the commission.
Douglas was an iconic and famously eloquent champion of coastal preservation. But almost since Lester’s elevation, a couple of commissioners have been bothered that such a high profile job should have been passed down without a national search or a broader debate about the commission’s direction.
A former political science professor with an introverted style, an encyclopedic knowledge of the California Coastal Act and 19 years of experience as a commission staffer, Lester is by all accounts a smart, honest and ethical executive director. He has overseen important work, from new administrative penalties for those who illegally block beach access to a guidance document on sea level rise that will be invaluable in managing the coast in this age of global warming.
Under Douglas, development interests viewed the commission as uniformly hostile, no matter the proposal. And some reasonable plans probably were stymied, though given the value of coastal property now and the rising tides slamming bluffs and beachfront buildings, that may be more prescient than sad.
The Coastal Act is clear in its mandate that development must be limited and access maximized. But the staff is passionate about its mission, sometimes to a degree that even sympathetic coastal property owners find obstructionist.
Frustrated developers and the politicians they backed tried twice, in vain, to get rid of Douglas, who beat them back by invoking his civil service right to a public hearing, as Lester now has, and mustering environmental advocates behind him.
The commissioners agitating most aggressively for Lester’s ouster are said to be gubernatorial appointees, one a politically connected and pugnacious holdover from the Schwarzenegger administration and two appointed by Brown. Governors can’t hire or fire the executive director, but Brown can talk to his appointees, or replace them.
Last week, Brown told a member of The Sacramento Bee editorial board that this furor doesn’t rise to his office’s purview. He should know – he signed the Coastal Act into law 40 years ago. But even if he welcomes a bit more coastal development for the jobs it offers or privately feels the commission can do better than Lester, it’s hard to imagine he’s pleased with this unseemly distraction.
Public spectacle is no way to manage the people’s business. Whoever is being served by this ugly uproar, it isn’t Californians or their beautiful coast.