San Diego environmentalists are leading the fight against a back-channel attempt to fire the California Coast Commission's executive director, saying that they believe the challenge to Charles Lester came from SoCal and it ought to be fought here.
"It's hard to tell exactly who initiated [the employment review] but we've been scouring their votes, and the governor's appointees from Southern California are the worst," said Stefanie Sekich-Quinn, coastal preservation director for the Surfrider Foundation. "We believe the lead on this is coming out of Southern California."
Actually, according to ActCoastal.org’s score sheet, San Diego's commissioner, county supervisor Greg Cox ties for the worst with appointee Martha McClure. Both counted out as voting two thirds of the time against coastal conservation and public interests.
None of the commissioners — including Greg Cox — will talk about the coming hearing and what's behind it. His staff said Cox won't be at the meeting because of previous scheduling, his staff says, so the county's alternative commissioner, Escondido city councilwoman Olga Diaz, is going instead.
Charles Lester has been the executive director since 2011. An attorney by training, he was promoted from within the commission, which has authority over development along California's 1100 miles of oceanfront. The move to review his employment was decided in closed session in December, and Lester asked for a public hearing, which will be held on Feb 10 in Morro Bay.
The commission was created in 1976 to oversea the Coastal Act, which many see as Gov. Jerry Brown's most enduring legacy. The act — which arose from a 1972 ballot initiative — provided for public access to the oceanfront for all Californians and for strict protection of coastal resources that has limited development on the very expensive and scarce land along the coast.
Former commissioner Steve Blank, a Silicon Valley businessman, warned of coming trouble when he resigned from the panel in 2013.
"The governor's appointees are seriously toxic to the commission, which has been the gold standard for what a commission can be if it isn't captive to the interests it regulates," Blank said in an interview with this reporter.
"Look at the other state regulatory commissions (notably the public utilities commission) and you'll see that no one is looking out for the 40 million Californians here…. It would be a shame to see that happen at the coastal commission," he added.
Blank cites the pending Banning Ranch project — 1100 homes on one of the last undeveloped parcels in Newport Beach — as a good example of why decapitating the commission staff is a timely move.
"Every year, the staff act like defenders of the faith — they are protecting all our rights," he said. "If you’re a developer ready to build 1100 million-dollar homes and the commission is your worst obstacle, you're going to hire whoever it takes to push that through."
Complaints against Lester — since it's a personnel matter, no one will list them openly — are that the commission moves too slowly and that there's a lack of diversity in the make-up of the staff. Blank says that diversity-in-hiring initiatives in 2014 and 2015 pushed the staff to about 30 percent minority. And, he said, the claims of foot-dragging don't stand up. Permits are being processed five times faster now than they were before 2010, according to the commission's annual reports.
Environmentalists also point to the commission's efforts to finish and share a report offering “Guidance on Sea Level Rise” with local governments, and its efforts to spend the fees it gathered to provide low-cost lodging along the coast.
Many sources point to appointee Wendy Mitchell as a point of origin for what they call "the coup." Mitchell represents clients including PG&E and Carollo, which builds desalination plants, among other things. She also represents infill developers Combined Properties, according to her website.
Earlier this year, Mitchell posted a picture of herself with U2 guitarist "the Edge" on Facebook, after the coastal commission hearing where hiss five-house compound atop one of the last undeveloped ridges in Malibu was finally approved.
Former commission executive director called the original project "one of the three worst projects I've ever seen in terms of environmental devastation."
On Facebook, Mitchell lamented "I'm only sorry it took them 10 years to get approval on their home."
(revised 2/1, 10:05 a.m.)