Coastal Commission Dismisses Executive Director

Coastal Commission staff including Executive Director Jack Ainsworth (standing center) watch as members of the public come forth to speak at a 2016 meeting.

 The California Coastal Commission (CCC) voted 7-5 to dismiss its executive director, Dr. Charles Lester, during its Wednesday meeting in Morro Bay, Calif. With Lester’s firing effective immediately, Senior Deputy Director Jack Ainsworth will temporarily take over his responsibilities until an interim director is selected.

The meeting, which began at 10 a.m. Wednesday and ran until almost 9:30 p.m., included over six hours dedicated to statements of support for Lester from hundreds of environmental leaders, activists, staff members and private citizens from around California.

Most in the audience appeared to believe the proposed dismissal of Lester would pave the way for a less conservation-minded staff to allow more development along the coast.

Votes were cast in closed session, which raised eyebrows among an already skeptical audience; however, many commissioners did speak up to provide long-awaited rationale for why Lester’s employment was put under review — not at all, they claimed, because of his environmental-mindedness.

Commissioner Mark Vargas, who in the end voted to terminate Lester’s employment, said that CCC staff under Lester were unable to provide necessary and timely information for commissioners to make informed decisions.

“I’m not sure whether we are purposely being denied this information or whether there is no way of knowing, but either way it is unacceptable,” Vargas lamented.

At the start of the meeting, Lester delivered a lengthy statement regarding his background, vision and goals for improvement of the CCC.

“The path forward to deal with [complicated] situations is to communicate better and more clearly about what people are hearing and saying,” Lester said. “We are committed to improving communication with the commission.”

His words, it would seem, were too little, too late.

Along with Vargas, Commissioners Olga Diaz, Erik Howell, Martha McClure, Wendy Mitchell, Effie Turnbull-Sanders and Roberto Uranga voted to dismiss Lester.

Chairman Steve Kinsey and Commissioners Mary Shallenberger, Dayna Bochco, Carole Groom and Mary Luévano voted in favor of retaining him.

After the meeting, Kinsey said complaints about Lester had to do with leadership, communication and other issues not related to conservation.

“I want to emphasize — I didn’t hear any commissioners say they wanted to see [a reduction in] the standards for coastal protection of natural resources,” Kinsey told The Malibu Times.

Kinsey also said commissioners would be looking for the next executive director to “care as deeply about the coast as the four preceding directors.”

Look for a longer version of this story in next week’s print edition and updated online.