There's a good reason why much of California's coastline remains wild and pristine — and doesn't resemble East Coast cities like Miami and Atlantic City. In 1972, California voters passed Proposition 20, establishing the California Coastal Commission, a state agency that, over the past four decades, has protected the state's coast from over-development. In fact, many environmentalists agree that the coastal commission is one of the few state agencies that has not been captured by the people and companies it regulates.
But the coastal commission's legacy of independence is in danger. This week, pro-development forces aligned with Governor Jerry Brown are expected to mount an attempt to fire the commission's executive director, Charles Lester, a conservationist lawyer who is known for his staunch defense of the state's scenic coastline.
"What we're seeing here is an attempt to oust an independent executive director," said Stefanie Sekich-Quinn of the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental group that keeps close tabs on the commission.
So far, coastal commissioners have remained silent on Lester's fate, but Lester's critics have quietly raised concerns about his management style and say the commission's staff needs to become more diverse. Lester responded late last week with a memo, detailing strategies for improvement. "More can be done to meet our goal of reflecting the broad diversity of California, and we must pursue any and all permissible methods to achieve this goal," he wrote.
Environmentalists contend that the real reason behind the attempted ouster is that pro-development forces want to gain control of the coastal commission and change it from an agency that regulates coastal development to one that facilitates development — just like the oil and gas industry has done with the California Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources, and the state's utilities, including PG&E, have done with the California Public Utilities Commission.
"The coastal commission has been a target since it was formed," said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group that won a lawsuit settlement last week that halts new fracking off California's coast. "It is one of our few remaining defenses" against industry.
Three of the current commissioners who are believed to be pushing for Lester's ouster were appointed by Brown: Martha McClure, Effie Turnbull-Sanders, and Erik Howell.
Along with the Surfrider Foundation, the environmental groups WildCoast and Environment California keep an annual scorecard of votes by coastal commissioners, and according to the 2015 scorecard, McClure, Turnbull-Sanders, and Howell have consistently voted on the pro-development side. The scorecard ranks commissioners on a scale of 0 to 100 percent, with 100 percent being pro-environment. McClure scored the lowest last year, with 32 percent, while Turnbull-Sanders scored 33 percent, and Howell, 42 percent.
Another commissioner who is suspected of wanting Lester fired is commission chairperson Steve Kinsey, a pro-development Democrat who serves on the Marin County Board of Supervisors. A few years ago, Kinsey was not happy with the fact that Lester had taken a tough stance against a controversial oyster farm at Point Reyes National Seashore.
Kinsey, who represents the Point Reyes area of West Marin, was an avid supporter of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company and its owner, Kevin Lunny. In 2012, then-US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar refused to extend Lunny's lease at Point Reyes, noting that Congress had designated the area occupied by the oyster farm to become the first federally protected marine wilderness on the West Coast. Numerous Republicans and pro-development Democrats rushed to Lunny's defense. But one of the few state agencies that stood up to Lunny and his allies was the coastal commission.
Lunny and his supporters had maintained that he was operating an eco-friendly operation. But in 2012, Lester penned a strongly worded enforcement letter to Lunny, noting that the oyster farm had repeatedly violated California's environmental laws and had failed to obtain the proper state permits for five years. "As you know, your facility remains unpermitted under the Coastal Act," Lester wrote.
Environmentalists from West Marin were not surprised by Kinsey's support of Lunny and the oyster farm. "He's got many developer buddies," Miller said. "And he has no trouble approving development that is environmentally damaging."
As of early this week, Governor Brown was still refusing to publicly intervene in the attempted firing of Lester — which is also not surprising. California environmentalists have known for years that Brown often prizes style over substance when it comes to the environment.