Ater a tumultuous year that included allegations of undue influence from wealthy land developers and the firing a popular leader, the California Coastal Commission has selected a new executive director.
Jack Ainsworth, a career commission employee who has served as the acting director since his predecessor and boss was fired last February, has been awarded the top spot, the agency announced Friday night.
Ainsworth, 59, has worked at the commission for nearly 30 years.
“Jack’s depth of understanding of coastal issues, the challenges confronting this agency and his steady leadership over the last year has thoroughly impressed us,” said Dayna Bochco, chair of the commission.
The commission, which was created by voter initiative in 1972, is responsible for protecting California’s 1,100 miles of oceanfront from overdevelopment — some of the most scenic and valuable real estate in the nation.
They accused Gov. Jerry Brown of stocking the commission with developer-friendly appointees and removing Lester because he stood in the way of constructions plans up and down the coast.
When the commission offered Lester a chance to step aside quietly he turned them down, setting up a very public showdown. The commission received more than 20,000 emails and letters on the subject, including one signed by 153 commission staff members, in opposition to Lester’s removal.
Lester’s supporters claimed his ouster coincided with looming decisions on a large desalination plant in Huntington Beach and Banning Ranch, a plan for hundreds of homes, a hotel and commercial development on 401 acres overlooking Newport Beach.
Commissioners appointed by Brown insisted they wanted Lester out because of poor management, not because the commission intended to take more developer friendly positions.
I am honored and humbled by this decision. I want the people of California to know that I will do my best every day to protect the coast for everyone.
Statement from Jack Ainsworth, new California Coastal Commission executive director
A press release Friday evening announcing Ainsworth’s appointment said the commission had conducted an extensive, nationwide search for a new leader, contacting more than 1,000 potential candidates, before settling on their acting executive director.
“I am honored and humbled by this decision,” Ainsworth said in the release. “I want the people of California to know that I will do my best every day to protect the coast for everyone.”
Susan Jordan, the executive director of the environmental group California Coastal Protection Network, described Ainsworth as an excellent choice with a strong institutional memory. She said he showed his mettle as the temporary head of the agency at a difficult time last year after the ouster of Charles Lester, who had served as the executive director for five years.
“He brought a very calm hand,” Jordan said. “I think he inspired trust with the commissioners and his staff and he brought them through a storm….At this point, this is what the agency needs.”
Jordan said she believes the veteran insider will be able to guide the agency as it deals with any battles with the Trump administration, especially over off-shore drilling.
“Our coast is one of the most import resources we have,” she said. “We need someone who knows the agency and can be a steady hand as we face this difficult period….His commitment to the coastal act is very strong.”
She said she was impressed with how Ainsworth handled the controversial Newport Banning Ranch project. The developer proposed plans for a resort hotel, shops and nearly 900 homes on a 401-acre oil field overlooking the ocean between Newport and Huntington beaches.
Our coast is one of the most import resources we have. We need someone who knows the agency and can be a steady hand as we face this difficult period.
Susan Jordan, executive director of the environmental group California Coastal Protection Network
Ainsworth’s staff recommended a smaller development. Two weeks before the commission’s vote last fall, his staff said the development’s footprint needed to shrink to about 20 acres to avoid destroying foraging habitat for burrowing owls that winter on Banning Ranch – eliminating the hotel, a main road from Pacific Coast Highway and roughly 400 residences.
In the end, the commission denied the developer’s proposal.
“He really tried to work with the developer, but he was also very clear where the law drew lines about what you’re allowed and what you’re not allowed to do,” Jordan said. “That’s the kind of leadership you want.”
Ainsworth grew up in San Bernardino. He has a BA in environmental studies and geography from California State University, San Bernardino and a MS in geography from the University of California, Riverside.
As Executive Director, Ainsworth will make $165,432 a year and be based in San Francisco, according to the press release.