From the Publisher: Showdown at Morro Bay

Arnold G. York

We live in a very contentious time. People no longer just disagree with you — if you have a different view, they actually hate you. They challenge your DNA and your country of origin. They view you as evil and corrupt, and suspect that you have been paid off by the dark side. I used to think (being a good, slightly — some might argue with this — left of center Democrat) that what I just described was some slightly cretinous Tea Party member, from one of those less than average states that we fought in the long ago past.

Well, you can imagine my surprise when in a state as blue as California, with our education levels as high as they are, some of these same angry characters popped up in Morro Bay last week. They were all totally upset that the 12 members of the California Coastal Commission (CCC) were considering firing Executive Director Charles Lester. They looked into the future and saw the apocalypse. They saw the end of the Coastal Act and coastal protection, with miles of coastal land going to be given over to rapacious developers, ready to cover our beaches with condominiums.

I must admit I was puzzled — puzzled about why the commissioners were willing to take the heat they were about to take for making the change, and why the environmental organizations were willing to go all in into this battle and risk alienating the commissioners, some, I’m sure, permanently.

I started to snoop around as any columnist would and got all sorts of information, off the record, since few wanted to be quoted except the very angry. What also surprised me was that Lester is not some great polarizing figure and, in fact, is a rather bland environmental bureaucrat who speaks in a deliberate manner and hardly seems the kind of person to be at the center of a firestorm. So, you might wonder, how is it that several hundred enraged people gathered at the meeting?

First, what became apparent was that most of the commissioners wanted him out — several more than just those who voted against him. Lester was the most frustrating of executive directors. They counseled him on numerous occasions, spent 25 hours of time in review of his performance, agreed on memos and courses of action, had Lester’s buy-in and thought change was coming. Lester agreed to most everything, walked out of the room and little happened thereafter to the deep frustration of most of the commissioners.

Lester serves at the pleasure of the commission, and a number of commissioners began to wonder if he worked for them, or, somehow, he thought the commissioners worked for him. Over time, momentum built for change, enough so that they were willing to take the heat. Frankly, I was surprised because, in the final analysis, I thought the commissioners would buckle under and come up with some sort of mealy-mouthed, compromised statement and avoid the final showdown. They just must have really wanted that guy out.

The more difficult question is why did the environmental groups decide to go to the mat on this one? Maybe they just believed, as I did, if they just leaned on the commissioners hard enough, they would give in, and it would then be clear to the commissioners who was in charge of the coastal environment in California — that is, not them, but the environmental groups. Maybe they drew the wrong lesson for what raw power could do.

Once before, the coastal commissioners tried to dump the executive director, except the executive director at that time was Peter Douglas. He was a coastal icon and one of the creators of the CCC. The attack by the appointees of Republican Governor Pete Wilson and a Republican speaker Curt Pringle was an effort to reduce the power of the coastal commission itself — not just an attack on Douglas.

Now, there are 12 commissioners — all Democrats, all environmentalists, all previously vetted by environmental organizations — from all over the state, with four appointed by the governor, four by the speaker and four by the Senate. They are a very diverse group, but all are environmentalists, so why the battle? 

It would seem to me that many of the environmental groups just misplayed their hands. They assumed that with a relatively manipulatable press, the memberships of their various organizations making calls and sending emails, threats of political retribution against officeholders who balked, and a packed hearing room that they would win. Well, they were wrong, and now they need a recovery strategy.

What is pretty clear is that before, the environmental groups had back door access to the coastal commission decisions via the executive director and the staff. I suspect that many didn’t even bother much with the commissioners, but went around them directly to staff, which may be the reason Lester couldn’t or wouldn’t change anything. What I see happened is that commissioners took back their power from the executive director and the staff, and indirectly from many of the environmental groups who previously called the shots.

What was surprising in all of this was how malleable and one sided most of the press coverage was. Now I can understand Steve Lopez at the LA Times who appears to go through life in a perpetual snit, because I understand that most columnists, myself included, believe that God speaks to us all by putting ideas into our brains that then pass down via our nervous system into our fingers on the computer keyboard.

What I have difficulty with is the reportage, which was so one sided, shallow and editorial in verbiage that one could only believe that most of the older, experienced editors had grabbed those buyouts while there was still some money around to grab and left many younger reporters sadly unsupervised.