VENTURA, Calif. (CN) – The California Coastal Commission will enter 2017 with a leadership shakeup, tapping lawyer Dayna Bochco to chair its 12-member decision-making body.
Steve Kinsey will step aside as commission chairman after accepting a consultant job with the city of San Rafael, California. He will help the city with its plans to refurbish its downtown corridor to accommodate commuter rail.
Bochco, an appointee of the California Senate Rules Committee, will assume duties as chair. While electing a new chair is an annual routine for the commission, Bochco begins her tenure in the midst of a a tumultuous time for the organization.
Kinsey, who has been a commissioner since 2011, saw his stint as chairman become clouded with controversy and questions regarding his integrity.
“It’s been a tumultuous year, controversial, but your leadership has brought us to this point,” commissioner Roberto Uranga said at the group’s monthly meeting on Thursday.
Uranga meant the comment as praise, also saying Kinsey had been a “great mentor” and an example “for the rest of us to emulate.” But by acknowledging the tumult and controversy, he perhaps touched on how Kinsey’s stint as chairman will be remembered.
Most of the controversy stems from the Banning Ranch development – a project that called for the construction of 895 homes, a hotel and retail space on an abandoned oil field overlooking the Pacific Ocean along prime Orange County scenic coastline.
While project proponents touted their ability to remediate the site from its oil-drilling past, environmentalists claim the site has already managed to bounce back from the degradation and represents one of the only major remaining points of open space along the coast in Southern California.
The commission eventually denied the project in September, but Kinsey abstained after it was revealed he failed to disclose several meetings with Banning Ranch developers despite such disclosures being required under the Coastal Act.
Kinsey also presided over the firing of the commission’s former executive director Charles Lester, who it has yet to replace, despite fierce public opposition to the move. Several environmentalists expressed concern that the commission ousted Lester in order to steer the body on a more development-friendly course.
It wasn’t merely the firing of Lester, but the opaque manner in which the action was undertaken, that drew widespread public ire.
After a marathon meeting this past February, during which hundreds of members of the public supported Lester and members of the commission’s staff also expressed staunch support, the panel retired into closed session.
The decision to fire Lester behind closed doors went against the advice of commission counsel Christopher Pederson, who told the commissioners prior to the meeting Lester had waived confidentiality rights when he requested a public hearing related to his performance as executive director.
Several close watchers of the commission’s process assert Lester’s firing had a direct relationship to Banning Ranch, in that staff repeatedly came back with reports that recommended the commissioners deny the project due to the proximity to wetlands and other environmentally sensitive habitat.
An email sent to the staff by Kinsey showed he embraced proponents’ argument that the former industrial site is not the pristine natural refuge portrayed by the environmentalists.
But commission staff pushed back, saying the existence of environmentally sensitive areas were not only important to preserve, but the commission’s own guiding documents asserted development could not be constructed within certain distances of such areas.
The recalcitrance of staff and increasingly frustration of commissioners with a billion-dollar real estate project at stake is what led to Lester’s dismissal, according to environmentalists and interested members of the public.
“We will work to bring this action, the failure in service to the public for whom they should be working – to light,” Surfrider Foundation coastal policy director Amanda Winchill said back in February. “But more productively, we will work to ensure that the Coastal Commission follows its founding purpose: to permanently protect the California coast, our ‘distinct and valuable natural resource of vital and enduring interest to all people and exists as a delicately balanced ecosystem.’”
Concerns were further exacerbated when staff, under the leadership of acting executive director Jack Ainsworth, backpedaled on its recommendation to reject the project and instead came back with a recommendation to approve a scaled-back version of the project in September.
Kinsey addressed the controversy in his parting remarks on Wednesday.
“There has been controversy around our change in leadership, but it is a reflection not of staff, but the way we prioritized our agency’s resources,” he said.
Kinsey, who actually voted against firing Lester, and others have maintained Lester’s dismissal had nothing to do with Banning Ranch but was about issues of leadership.
The commissioners also argued they were constrained in providing detailed reasons for the ouster due to restrictions on talking about personnel moves in public organizations.
Kinsey took time on Wednesday to list the many accomplishments of the organization under his watch, including crafting a sea-level rise policy, the protection of orcas at SeaWorld, the closure of two nuclear power plants, taking the Navy to task for some of its testing in coastal waters and the creation of marine protected areas.
“It is my own strong feeling with the recruitment of the new executive director in front of us that we are stronger and better because of the work we have taken on this year,” Kinsey said. “I want to recognize my colleagues, who saw the importance of these changes and had the courage and commitment to see them through.”
Bochco is an attorney who got her start in contract law and worked in the entertainment industry for the majority of her career, earning an executive role at Twentieth Century Fox Television in the 1980s. She sits on the boards of several environmental groups, including Heal the Bay.
She is also a television producer who has been married to TV industry giant Steven Bochco, creator of “Hill Street Blues,” “Doogie Howser M.D.” and “NYPD Blue,” since 2000.