Next month, the 12 members of the California Coastal Commission are going to decide if they are going to fire Dr. Charles Lester, the executive director of the Commission, who serves at their pleasure. As a practical matter, that means that if seven out of the 12 commissioners don’t want him anymore, he’s gone and they appoint someone new.
The environmental community, like the Sierra Club and various other private coastal organizations, is up in arms, charging that this is a move to destroy the independence of the Coastal Commission and will lead to rampant development of the coast. The charge is a bit puzzling because the executive director works for the Coastal Commission and what they seem to be saying is that this is a challenge to the independence of the Coastal Commiassion staff who really shouldn’t have to report to anyone except perhaps the environmental community, all of whom are self-appointed.
First, a little bit of background: The 12-member Coastal Commission is appointed in three separate groups. Four by the governor, who serve at his pleasure, four by the speaker of the assembly, who serve for a fixed term, and four by the pro tem (the leader) of the senate, who also serve for fixed terms. Additionally, the speaker and the pro tem make their appointments from lists given to them. The effect is that of the 12 commissioners, some are public citizen commissioners, some are city council members, some members of the boards of supervisors. They are also split geographically, so all parts of the coast — north, central and south — are represented on the commission. The plan was designed to divide up the power, recognizing that there are many diverse and conflicting coastal stakeholders, with divisions between state and local governments, harbors and industrial, recreational and shipping, environmental and developmental, sanitation and navigation.
Being a Coastal Commissioner is a tough job with long hours, travel, many meetings and plenty of controversy. Today, there is not a single industrialist, developer, oil or utility person on the current Coastal Commission. In fact, they are all environmentalists with some varying philosophies, all appointed by Democrats, with no small measure of input from the environmental community about the appointments.
Knowing the makeup of the Commission, what is this battle all about? What it is really is a battle between the purists, many of whom are in environmental organizations, who only see one use of the coast and that’s recreation, and the realists who actually sit on the Coastal Commission, and are swore to follow the coastal act and balance all the conflicting interests — not just the parts they like and ignore the parts they don’t like.
Illustrative of the purist thinking is a rating chart put out by the environmental organization ActCoastal, a project of the Surfrider Foundation, WILDCOAST and Environment California, rating the commissioners on their environmentalism, at least according to these very self-appointed coastal protectors. They charted the 19 or so votes made, and divided them into anti-conservation votes and pro-conservation votes. According to their evaluation, they deemed that eight of the 12 commissioners cast votes that were appropriately environmental only 50 percent or less of the time, with six of them below 42 percent, down to 32 percent. In case you’re wondering how a bunch of environmentalists could be casting so many anti-environmentalist votes, you merely have to look at the Tea Party on the other side of the spectrum, because it is exactly the same kind of thinking: either you’re with us on everything or you’re evil.
Now, back into this environmental paranoia steps our old purist adversary, former chair of the Coastal Commission — until she overreached and got booted off — Malibu’s own Sara Wan. Sara recently sent out a call to arms to the environmental community in the form of an email, and rather than trying to paraphrase it, we’re printing it in its entirety on page A14. It’s an interesting read, particularly the portion about how they should try to intimidate the commissioners into retaining Charles Lester, who, assuming from the tone of the letter, must be fairly pliable in the hands of the environmental activists.
I kind of feel bad for Charles Lester who is sort of caught in the middle between some very aggressive environmental activists and a number of Coastal Commissioners who are upset with his performance, his inability or unwillingness to bring the staff under control, his somewhat lackadaisical response to what some of the commissioners want as opposed to what some of the more activist environmentalists want, and the lack of diversity in the Commission. Apparently the executive director and some of the staff don’t seem to feel that the lack of racial diversity is a serious problem, but the Commission staff is significantly less racial diverse than most of the state government and most of the environmental agencies. Apparently several commissioners and appointing authorities have been pushing this lack of diversity for several years, and nothing has happened to change things and they have run out of patience.
The Coastal Commission meeting is set for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, Feb. 10-12, although they currently expect the executive director issue to be heard on Wednesday, Feb 10.