PD Editorial: California Coastal Commission’s shady firing of Charles Lester
In the end, the numbers didn’t matter.
The 1,000 or so people who showed up at the California Coastal Commission meeting Wednesday to show support for embattled Executive Director Charles Lester didn’t matter. The 10 hours of public testimony by some 250 speakers didn’t matter, and the nearly 29,000 letters of support from individuals and organizations throughout the state didn’t matter.
Among the speakers Wednesday was Efren Carrillo, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, who not only presented a board resolution passed unanimously in support of Lester but voiced many of this area’s concerns. “It goes beyond Charles Lester,” Carrillo told a crowd gathered outside the commission meeting in Morro Bay. “This is about the protection of the Coastal Preservation Act. (Sonoma County) was the birthplace of the Coastal Act. We take pride in that … And the farce we are seeing today is a farce to the entire state of California.”
Yet none of it mattered. The only numbers that mattered was the 7-5 vote late Wednesday by the commission to remove Lester.
Why? Unfortunately, the explanations have been meager, leaving Californians to draw their own conclusions.
The chief allegations are that Lester has been unresponsive to commissioners and commission staff work has been slow and inefficient. But his very public removal has come with a troubling lack of specificity. His critics say they are constrained by the fact that this is a personnel issue, which is something we respect.
Nonetheless, the ham-handed way in which this change in leadership has occurred has left many to question whether the motivations are more about politics than job performance.
Some commissioners have pushed back at this idea with force. “Some of you are convinced we are behind a sinister plot to (undo) everything we are sworn to protect,” Commissioner Mark Vargas told reporters. “The myth of the coup by pro-development forces — if I were a member of the public and I received messages with this narrative, I would be scared, too. There is absolutely no truth to this narrative.”
Maybe it is a myth. Maybe there are good reasons for terminating an employee who had been with the commission for 22 years before taking over as chief from the late Peter Douglas, who headed the organization from 1985 until 2011. But the public has reason to be skeptical. There’s a history of such shenanigans. Douglas himself survived two attempts at having him removed. One of those was led by former Gov. Pete Wilson.
Thus the burden falls to the commission itself to demonstrate that this ouster was not driven by political or development interests by hiring a successor with a proven track record in coastal protection, someone qualified to carry out the principles of the California Coastal Act and carry on the commission’s legacy. The commission also will show its true motive through its actions in the many months to come. One thing is certain. By its actions on Wednesday, it has assured itself a close following. And those numbers won’t be so easy to ignore.