Coastal Commission director fired after daylong meeting in Morro Bay

The embattled top executive of a powerful commission that oversees development on California’s famed coastline was fired Wednesday night when commissioners followed through on a threat to oust him from his job after six hours of public comment in Morro Bay.

More than 500 people from across the state packed the Morro Bay Community Center for the meeting of the 12-member California Coastal Commission, which was considering whether to replace Executive Director Charles Lester amid a power struggle over the direction of the panel.

After more than an hour in closed session, the panel announced it had voted 7-5 to remove Lester.

“I’m disappointed in the vote,” Lester said afterward. “Thank you for the honor to have served.”

In their deliberations, some Coastal Commission members took issue with Lester’s leadership, saying his staff had not kept them well enough informed and had not sufficiently answered their questions.

“I do feel that we are not getting what we need,” Commissioner Dayna Bochco said.

However, none of the commissioners said publicly that they were willing to vote to dismiss him, though they had not made a final decision.

“It is really unfortunate that we got here today,” Commissioner Mary Shallenberger said. “I think on the face of this, we cannot dismiss him.”

Commissioner Effie Turnbull-Sanders said the commission needs to do a better job of recruiting more diversity in the staff.

“Are we talking to working people when we make our decisions and are we talking to people of color?” she asked.

The meeting drew a large crowd that filled the auditorium to capacity. Supporters of Lester held signs saying “More Lester” and “Save Our Coast,” telling the commission that coastal protections would be threatened if Lester is pushed aside.

Numerous San Luis Obispo County residents were among the supporters who spoke in defense of Lester.

Mary Webb, with Greenspace — the Cambria Land Trust, said the Coastal Commission is the only thing standing between the coast and developers.

Tarren Collins of Pismo Beach said, “I can tell from my personal experience that working with Dr. Lester has been a dream.” She cited the effort to keep Ontario Ridge above Avila Beach open to the public as an example of the commission’s and Lester’s good work.

Joey Racano of Los Osos said Lester has done a good job protecting the coast. “Last I looked, they’re not making anymore coastline,” he said.

Susan Jordan of the California Coastal Protection Network warned that Lester’s removal could threaten beach access for the public and open a new era of unchecked development.

“There will always be another billionaire who will block access to the beach,” she warned, alluding to notorious fights over beaches in Malibu and other celebrity enclaves.

William L. Perocchi, chief executive of the Pebble Beach Co., which owns the famed seaside golf course, submitted a letter to the panel calling Lester “fair, pragmatic, creative, open and reasonable.”

During six hours of public comment, not one person spoke in favor of removing Lester. Elected officials and members of groups like the Chumash tribe were among those offering support.

The challenge to Lester’s leadership has raised questions about the direction of an agency often caught in the conflict between property rights and conservation. Lester was notified in a letter from commission Chairman Steve Kinsey last month that the commission would consider whether to fire him at Wednesday’s meeting.

Earlier Wednesday, Lester gave an impassioned defense of his tenure as executive director of the Coastal Commission.

Lester described his leadership as “strong, focused and effective.” He said he was “extremely dismayed” when he learned the panel was considering firing him. Public access is one of the most important duties of the commission, he said.

“The commission is at its core a social justice program,” he said.

Increasing diversity within the commission staff and dealing with climate change and sea level rise are several of his goals for the future. “The work of the commission is the essence of what I am,” he said.

The panel, created by voters in 1972, has broad sway over construction and environmental issues in coastal areas that include some of the most coveted real estate in the United States.

The 12-member commission has received thousands of letters and emails supporting Lester’s leadership. Environmental activists suspect some commission members want to push him out to make way for management that would be more favorable to development.

Lester has aggressively defended his tenure and depicted himself as an able steward of the coast. He has said he and the commission have made strides addressing the effects of sea-level rise tied to climate change, protecting open space and winning additional funding.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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