California Coastal Commission Hires New Director

(CN) — After a year of controversy, the California Coastal Commission hired its acting executive director Jack Ainsworth as its full-time leader, to succeed the popular Charles Lester, whom the commission fired a year ago.

Ainsworth has worked for the Coastal Commission for 29 years, as an analyst, senior deputy director, and acting executive director since last February, after Lester’s controversial firing.

Commissioners fired Lester by 7-5 vote, an act environmentalists viewed as a betrayal. They lambasted the commission for kowtowing to developers.

The Coastal Commission enforces the California Coastal Act, in effect controlling development along the state’s 840-mile-long coast.

In a 10-hour public comment session before Lester was fired, virtually all speakers spoke in favor of Lester and opposed firing him. Commissioners removed Lester in a private vote without discussing the results with the crowd – a move criticized as a first step in moving toward a more development-friendly commission.

It was not just public speakers who rallied behind Lester – more than 150 commission staff members, 18 state lawmakers and 35 former commissioners unsuccessfully petitioned the commission to keep him.

An environmental group then sued the commission and lawmakers introduced bills requiring consultants who seek to influence the Coastal Commission to register as lobbyists.

Environmental groups also asked to be involved in the hiring process and signed a letter demanding the new executive director be “environmentally knowledgeable, focused on curbing climate change, advancing environmental justice, coastal resource protection and representing California’s diverse public.”

The commission hired CPS HR Consulting to do a national search for a new executive director. After the top three finalists were interviewed Friday, the commission tapped one of its own as its fifth executive director in four decades.

“I am honored and humbled by this decision, and the fact that the commissioners have entrusted me to lead the next chapter of California’s extraordinary coastal legacy,” Ainsworth said in a statement. “I want the people of California to know that I will do my best every day to protect the coast for everyone, as will the staff I work with and [for whom I] have so much respect.”

Ainsworth received his B.A. in geography and environmental studies from California State University San Bernardino in 1981 and a Masters in geography from University of California Riverside in 1986.

In a statement Ainsworth submitted to the commission during the application process, made available Friday, he stressed his knowledge of the commission and its “core work,” including analysis of complex and controversial coastal development permit applications, local coastal programs, enforcement actions and other regulatory work.

“I have never forgotten that the Coastal Commission is protecting and preserving our coastal resources and public access not only for those who have the privilege to live at the coast, but for those inland California residents and all people who visit and rely on our coast for recreation and renewal of their spirit,” Ainsworth wrote.

He will lead a staff of 156 people at six offices, from Arcata to San Diego. Ainsworth’s salary is $165,432 a year and he will take over as executive director immediately. He will be based in the commission’s headquarters in San Francisco.