Environmental groups — stung by the California Coastal Commission’s unprecedented decision to fire the agency’s executive director — have vowed to keep a watchful eye over the Commission as it chooses his replacement.
Charles Lester had received a strong show of support from conservation groups and Commission staff in the lead up to Wednesday's meeting, but commissioners still voted 7 to 5 to fire him.
Several environmental groups, including Heal the Bay, the Sierra Club and Audubon California, issued statements criticizing the decision and repeating claims that commissioners were acceding to pressure from developers who want an easing of restrictions along the coast.
Environmentalists said the vote was handled with a lack of transparency and included few facts to support claims Lester had mismanaged the agency. They said they would closely scrutinize future candidates to ensure they have not been influenced by special interests.
"One thing this shows is that I think everyone needs to keep a much closer eye on the Commission — who influences them," said David Pettit, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Everyone needs to watch closely what’s happening to make sure that the new director is a real advocate for the coast and isn’t somebody who is totally politicized."
Others echoed that sentiment, saying commissioners’ claims of independence from developers would be judged based on the candidate they choose to replace Lester.
Speaking on KPCC’s Airtalk Thursday, Commission Chairman Steve Kinsey — who voted against firing Lester — noted that some commissioners had criticized the executive director for personnel conflicts, poor communication and a lack of commitment to diversity within the agency.
"The fact that it was a divided commission reflects the fact that Dr. Lester is well respected amongst all of us, but it came down to whether he was the right person to lead us in the going forward stage of the Commission’s history," Kinsey said.
Before Wednesday's closed-door vote, commissioner Mark Vargas - who voted to oust Lester - said there was no truth to the allegations that Lester's opponents were acting at the behest of developers, according to the Los Angeles Times.
"There was no coup by developer interests," the paper quoted Vargas as saying. "But this is like trying to convince people that the fluoride in their water was not a communist plot."
Lester's supporters are unconvinced.
"I think it’s up to the appointees on the Commission now to prove themselves when they say this wasn’t a developer coup," said David Helvarg, executive director of Blue Frontier. "And we’re going to look for an interim appointee and a potential candidate that have strong credentials for environmental protection and management, because that’s the mandate of the Coastal Commission."
Kinsey said he didn’t anticipate the commissioners would begin the public search for an interim and permanent replacement until March. He said whomever is chosen would ideally have "greater management skills or experience," though he did laud Lester’s commitment to the aims of the Coastal Commission.
"I think the new executive director is going to have to try to follow in the significant footsteps of Dr. Lester in terms of understanding the Coastal Act, understanding the citizenry’s role in the Coastal Act, having the strong environmental track record of protection of sensitive environmental habitats and species and also ensuring that everyone — all cultures, all cultures, all people — have the opportunity to get to the coast and enjoy it," said Kinsey.