Development watchdogs decry firing of popular director; commissioner says motivation was unrelated to political drama

By Gary Walker

Still stinging over the ouster of California Coastal Commission Executive Director Charles Lester, Westside environmental groups and advocates for protecting the coastline from overdevelopment remain convinced that the decision to fire Lester was politically driven.

The commission voted 7-5 on Feb. 10 to fire Lester despite hearing six hours of public pleas to retain him by activists, environmentalists and elected officials.

The decision has left some of Lester’s supporters pessimistic, others angry and determined to fight against what they believe is a movement toward loosening restrictions on development along 1,100 miles of California coastline.

The Argonaut reached out to each of the commissioners who voted to fire Lester. Only one of them responded: Long Beach City Councilman Roberto Uranga, a 2015 appointee of the California Senate’s Rules Committee and the commissioner who lives closest to West Los Angeles.

Those who voted to fire Lester and did not respond to requests for comment are: Pismo Beach City Councilman Erik Howell, land-use attorney Effie Turnbull-Sanders, Del Norte County Supervisor Martha McClure, Olga Diaz, businessman Mark Vargas and management consultant Wendy Mitchell.

Asked whether the widespread public belief that pressure from developers and their lobbyists was the driving force behind the decision to fire Lester, Uranga responded forcefully that “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Uranga referenced two unsuccessful attempts by prior commissioners to fire Lester’s predecessor, Peter Douglas, who hand-picked Lester as his successor almost five years ago.

“Those were politically motivated [decisions] because there was political pressure [not to dismiss] Douglas. For this commission to have retained Dr. Lester based on his job performance would have been politically motived,” Uranga said. “In the end the commission determined, based on Dr. Lester’s performance, that it was time for a change. There were some leadership challenges that we brought to his attention, but he couldn’t step up to the plate.”

People close to the commission have told reporters that Lester wasn’t bringing projects before commissioners in a timely manner.

Before commissioners cast their votes in a session closed to the public, Lester addressed the roughly 600 people who had gathered to support him during the meeting in Morro Bay.

“The last three weeks have not been very easy, but we need to get past this. I’m willing to work with the commission, and I want to thank them for doing their jobs as public servants,” Lester told the audience before also thanking them for showing up.

California Coastal Commissioner Mary Shallenberger, an environmental policy advisor who favored keeping Lester, said the outpouring of support for Lester illustrates “to me that the public’s desire to protect the coast is a movement. This is a fabulous display of public participation.”

Venice Neighborhood Council member Robin Rudisill, who along with other local community activists traveled more than 200 miles to attend the commission hearing, said she was shocked when the axe fell on Lester.

“It was surreal. Everything froze. I couldn’t stop crying,” Rudisill said. “They violated the public trust by the way that they treated him.”

Playa del Rey community activist Julie Ross believes the commissioners had decided Lester’s fate long before the meeting.

‘It seemed so politicized to me. The commissioners who voted [Lester] out don’t have one-tenth the qualifications that he has. I thought they were extremely insincere and shameless,” Ross said.

Venice resident Mindy Taylor-Ross also isn’t buying the commission’s explanations. Taylor Ross called Lester “the best man for the job” and said that even if concerns about administrative issues were justifiable, she doubted they should be a firing offense.

“These actions [to fire Lester] are highly suspicious and should be investigated at the highest level. I also believe the system is broken when the executive director can be forced out by development concerns and pressures to do a very difficult and time-consuming job,” she said.

Los Angeles Baykeeper Executive Director Bruce Reznik, formerly an alternate member of the California Coastal Commission, said he had anticipated that the commission would go against Lester because he had heard rumblings about members’ dissatisfaction with him.

“But I was surprised to see that they chose to disregard the overwhelming support for Lester,” Reznik said.

At the commission’s next meeting in March, which will be held in Santa Monica, Uranga said he hopes that his colleagues will agree to look at crafting procedures for the search to replace Lester.

Uranga also took issue with Lester’s statements that he was fired because “he had become too independent of the commission.”

“There is no job description [for executive director],” Uranga said. “That would have made it clear that Dr. Lester worked for the commission.”

Ross believes Lester’s departure will have profound consequences for coastal protections.

“Firing Dr. Lester was like firing Steve Jobs from Apple,” she said.