Controversy swirled around the California Coastal Commission (CCC) this week as the February meeting agenda was released, revealing a move by commissioners to oust Executive Director Charles Lester, who has led CCC staff since 2011.
Should Lester’s firing receive the requisite votes at the February meeting, which will be held in Morro Bay, Calif., from Feb. 10-12, an interim executive director will be likely appointed at that time — if not a new permanent executive director. Seven votes will be needed if all 12 commissioners attend the meeting, or six if 11 commissioners are in attendance.
“Pursuant to Government Code § 11126(a), after the conclusion of the public hearing, the Commission may deliberate regarding this item in closed session,” reads the February agenda, published Jan. 22. “If the Commission takes any action during closed session to dismiss the Executive Director, the roll call vote will be reported publicly when the Commission reconvenes in open session.” Lester has evidently invoked his right to a public hearing over his employment status, which would appear to mean he and his supporters intend to make a stand in defense of the executive director.
Emails obtained by The Malibu Times show members of California’s environmental community rallying support for Lester, who is considered a steadfast advocate for environmentalism against the encroachment of coastal development. To others, this is a power struggle between outside interest groups and the commission itself.
“It is very important we get hundreds of people to show up [to the meeting], and not everyone can afford to make the trip so a bus will really help,” wrote Una Glass, Vice Mayor of Sebastopol, Calif., and executive director of Coastwalk California, in an email.
According to knowledgeable sources, it is likely that Lester’s ouster would not appear on the February agenda if Commissioners did not feel confident that they had the minimum votes to fire the executive director. As for which Commissioners are involved in the attempted ouster, fingers are pointing in all directions.
A voting chart also obtained by The Malibu Times and prepared by a branch of the Surfrider Foundation, together with WILDCOAST and Environment California, shows 2015 voting broken down into “anti-conservation” and “pro-conservation” ballots cast.
Edits to the chart were made by an unknown person pointing to five commissioners who allegedly wish to oust Lester — four of whom were appointed by Governor Jerry Brown. These are: Commissioners Erik Howell, Mark Vargas, Effie Turnbull-Sanders, Wendy Mitchell and Martha McClure, each of whom have cast fewer than 50 percent “pro-conservation” votes in 2015, according to Surfrider.
Sara Wan, a local conservationist and former Coastal Commissioner, sent an email that was obtained by The Malibu Times, suggesting the deeper issue is that of Brown “attempting to undermine the Commission’s independence and turn[ing] it over to the energy and development interests.”
Wan also included a threat to those whom she pegged as leading the charge against Lester (Commissioners McClure and Howell, but also Gregory Cox, Roberto Uranga and Chair Steve Kinsey); namely, that they “will pay the price next time they are up for election if they support the firing.”
On the heels of the publishing of the February agenda, powerful environmental advocacy group the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against the Commission, alleging wrongdoing over the approval of the controversial “Edge” project — the construction of five homes on a blufftop in Malibu by U2 rocker David “The Edge” Evans and his business associates.
The Sweetwater Mesa project was approved by the commission in a unanimous vote in December 2015, against the wishes of environmental groups such as the Sierra Club.
The suit was filed in L.A. County Superior Court on Thursday, Jan. 21.