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California Coastal Commission Fires Executive Director Charles Lester

Decision made despite huge public support for his work

On Wednesday, February 10, in Morro Bay, CA, seven members of the California Coastal Commission ignored a huge showing of public support for Executive Director Charles Lester, and voted in private to fire him.

At no point was it ever clear what problems these Commissioners had, if any, with Dr. Lester. Five members of the 12-member Commission voted in support of Lester.

Photo of California coastPhoto by Howard Ignatius The California Coastal Commission fired Exectuive Director Charles Lester in a 7-5 votes.

More than 150 environmental organizations, including Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project, supported Lester. The Commission received more than 20,000 emails and letters prior to the vote; only 4 expressed opposition to Lester. Numerous public and elected officials also expressed support for Lester, as did major newspapers in editorials. One hundred and fifty Coastal Commission staff members signed a letter of support for him, as did 35 former Commission members. Around 600 people showed up to testify at the all-day hearing on the matter in Morro Bay. All for naught.

Repeatedly, the public speakers at the hearing asked the Commission members to explain why they wanted to fire Lester. At the end of the hearing, several Commission members who voted for Lester’s ouster did not say anything, several praised Lester, and several made remarks that were vague, off the subject, critical of environmental organizations and the media, and in some cases just plain inane.

California state Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, who appointed four members of the 12-member Commission, tweeted to the public: “Let me apologize to the public.  I truly thought my appointees would be better stewards of the coast.”

Lester told the Los Angeles Times the day after his firing: “This commission seems to be more interested in and receptive to the concerns of the development community as a general rule. There is less focus on how we can make decisions to implement the Coastal Act.”

The Los Angeles Times editorialized after Lester’s removal: “It’s too soon to say whether Lester’s dismissal will be a tragedy for the coast, but if commission critics are right and pro-development forces seeking to erode coastal protections orchestrated Lester’s ouster, then Californians have good reason to worry. And to be angry.”

It is not yet clear how Lester’s ouster will impact several major development projects pending before the Commission. It also remains unclear what the Commission might do with the issue of the captive orcas in SeaWorld. Last fall, the Commission amended SeaWorld’s proposed permit to expand its orca tanks to include a provision preventing any further breeding or transport of orcas from SeaWorld San Diego. The Commission voted in support of the amendment 11-1.  SeaWorld has filed suit against the Commission, and the Commission is expected to consider the final text of that controversial amendment to the permit and specific Commission findings at their March meeting in Santa Monica, CA. 

At the end of the day, Dr. Charles Lester gave a short statement of regret for leaving.  All of us in the audience rose up to give him a standing ovation.

What You Can Do:

The executive director serves at the pleasure of the California Coastal Commission.  The twelve members of the Commission serve at the pleasure of those who appoint them: Four each are appointed by Governor Jerry Brown, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, and President Pro Tem of the state Senate Kevin de Leon.

The vote was as followed: Commissioners Olga Diaz (alternate for Commissioner Cox), Erik Howell, Wendy Mitchell, Effie Turnbull-Sanders, Mark Vargas, Martha McClure and Roberto Uranga voted to fire Lester. Voting no were Carole Groom, Mary Shallenberger, Steve Kinsey, vice chair Dayna Bochco and Mary Luevano.

All of Jerry Brown’s four appointees and two of Assembly Speaker Atkins’ appointees supported the move to oust Lester.

You can contact these public officials through their online email forms: Contact Governor Jerry Brown here, Assembly Speaker Tonic Atkins here, and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon here.

The International Marine Mammal Project will have more information shortly on what you can do to help put the California Coastal Commission back on track.

Mark J. Palmer
Mark J. Palmer is Associate Director of the International Marine Mammal Project.

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