The Day Grandmother Ocean Cried
“Grandmother Ocean and this coast” have been sacred and life-giving to my people for thousands of years, declared Fred Collins, administrator for the Northern Chumash Council, who went on to praise Dr. Charles Lester, executive director of the California Coastal Commission, for his stewardship of the shore.
Collins kicked off the public commentary at the Feb. 10 California Coastal Commission meeting at Morro Bay, attended by roughly 1,000 citizens (including my wife, me, and at least five other Lagunans), at which Dr. Lester was fired for vaguely stated reasons related to his allegedly unresponsive leadership style, the time required to prepare reports, and his presiding over a staff deemed insufficiently diverse in terms of ethnicity.
All of these issues were addressed by pro-Dr. Lester speakers at the meeting. They noted that ethnic diversity has been a staff issue for decades, long before Dr. Lester’s tenure and that his strategic plan for the commission provided sound steps to address the matter. Moreover, African American and Hispanic staffers attested to the growing diversity among their coworkers, and nearly all staffers signed a petition urging commissioners to retain Dr. Lester as their chief.
Commissioners failed to provide convincing evidence regarding Dr. Lester’s alleged unresponsiveness to their communications. The embattled executive director provided empirical evidence showing how the 163-member staff had improved efficiencies in preparing and issuing reports on appealed projects. Every one of the hundreds of public officials, citizen coastal activists, and business leaders who testified urged the retention of Dr. Lester. The San Francisco Chronicle reported Feb. 11, “Not a single speaker spoke in favor of firing Dr. Lester.”
Ralph Faust, famed former legal counsel for the commission, told the panelists, “It is obvious . . . you’re getting killed today.” Decide in open session, not behind closed doors, and “own your decision. Defend it.”
A much larger public than those of us assembled at the Morro Bay Community Center weighed in on the dismissal matter. In the same edition, The Chronicle reported that the Coastal Commission received some 28,000 emails and other communications urging the retention of Dr. Lester; three communications requested his firing. Hmm, 28,000 to three is a pretty sure indication of where the public stood on keeping Dr. Lester, a conservationist with a science degree from Columbia and law and Ph.D. degrees from U.C. Berkeley. Former coastal commissioners and other political luminaries, including former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and current Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins had sent letters to the Coastal Commissioners urging against the firing of Dr. Lester.
At the end of more than seven hours of deliberations, most of which were taken up with testimony from those favoring Dr. Lester, commissioners went into closed session and voted 7-5 to fire him. Shock, disbelief, and tears among his supporters followed.
Why did this happen? Dr. Lester’s credentials were ideal. He had 19 years of Coastal Commission experience and had written a doctoral dissertation on the functioning of the agency. He was highly respected by staff. I interviewed him for an hour several months ago and came away highly impressed with his intellect, dedication, and decency. If he and his record were not at the heart of his dismissal, then what was? The most seasoned, knowledgeable coastal activists with whom I’m acquainted are convinced that commissioners wanting the agency to be more developer-friendly (four of whom were Gov. Jerry Brown appointees) orchestrated Dr. Lester’s takedown. This seems the most likely explanation to me.
Without Dr. Lester at the helm, we may see public access shut off at Martins Beach by billionaire homeowner Vinod Khosla, hundreds of new homes built on Newport Beach’s Banning Ranch instead of its preservation as a nature reserve, more power plants and large resort hotels on California’s shore, and consequently more beach pollution.
Today, I and countless others weep for Grandmother Ocean and our coast. Tomorrow, we climb back in the ring: Round 2.
Tom Osborne is at work on a book about Lester’s predecessor at the commission, Peter Douglas.