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After the Fall

Critics say pro-development forces are behind popular coastal commission director's ouster

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THROWN OVERBOARD Charles Lester served as the California Coastal Commission's second-ever executive director until commissioners ousted him last month.
  • THROWN OVERBOARD Charles Lester served as the California Coastal Commission's second-ever executive director until commissioners ousted him last month.

Until a couple of months ago, Charles Lester thought everything was going well at his post as executive director of the California Coastal Commission.

Lester, whose hiring was unanimously approved by the commission less than five ago, had racked up a number of accomplishments as its second director ever, including securing a bigger staff, streamlining complex processes and finding compromise on controversial projects.

Looking back, Lester now admits, sheepishly, that he was considering asking for a raise—until, that was, last December, when he got an unfavorable performance review from commissioners. He realized then that his days at the commission, which oversees more than 1,000 miles of coastline, might be numbered.

Lester received notice of his possible termination in January and opted for a public hearing on the decision.

"The notice itself wasn't a total surprise, although the exact timing was a little surprising," he says.

Lester, known for being low-key and soft-spoken, is technically still employed by the commission, as he helps staff transition to senior deputy director Jack Ainsworth's leadership. Ainsworth will act as interim executive director until a new one is hired.

Lester's termination set off a firestorm of outrage; more than 600 people showed up to his hearing in Morro Bay and gave six hours of testimony in his favor. Due to lobbyists' growing influence on the commission, politicians and environmentalists all over the state say pro-development interests were behind his firing—something Lester says appears to be true.

Commissioners, who called for the termination and approved it on a 7–5 vote, gave their own reasons for the change, some vague and some dubious.

One was the worry that the Coastal Commission staff, 95 percent of which signed a letter supporting Lester, doesn't accurately reflect the diversity of the state. Although Lester called the accusation "a misdirection," he doesn't take the issue of diversity lightly.

"It's really important. I'm not saying it isn't," Lester says. "I felt like I was addressing it. Is there more to do? Yep. There's more to do."

Lester had actually just released an update on the state of diversity in the Coastal Commission as part of his February director's report. The report's numbers reveal a staff that, although not a cultural melting pot, is in step with other state agencies. According to the report, the staff's racial diversity exceeds that of environmental groups in the state, with people of color on staff coming out to 29 percent. "By that measure, the numbers weren't terrible. Again, they weren't good enough, so we were working on it," Lester says.

In the past few years, a discussion has been brewing that goes well beyond the Coastal Commission, about a disconnect between environmental groups on the one side and diversity organizations and communities of color on the other.

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