Coastal Commission Vows to Be Open in Hunt

     SANTA ROSA, Calif. (CN) — The Coastal Commission will attempt to hire a new leader after parting ways with its former executive director Charles Lester behind closed doors, after the public and commission staff had lauded Lester’s leadership.
     Several members of the public demanded to be included in the search process for the new executive director after concerns have mounted that the 12-person commission fired Lester to chart a more development-friendly course for the agency.
     “We want to be involved in this hiring process,” said Amy Trainer, deputy director for the California Coastal Protection Network. “We believe involvement of the public will help with transparency and public buy-in. Even if we disagree on the final candidate, the ability to participate will help support the process.”
     Trainer and others from various environmental nonprofits with a stake in coastal protection signed a letter demanding a new executive director “who is environmentally knowledgeable, focused on curbing climate change, advancing environmental justice, coastal resource protection and representing California’s diverse public.”
     Concern over the direction of the commission has increased not just because the 12-person panel dismissed its executive director, but the manner in which they did it.
     After a marathon meeting in 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 the 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.
     Typically, decisionmaking bodies for public entities can and do hide behind provisions in California’s open-meeting laws that render personnel decisions and the rationale behind them confidential.
     But those provisions did not apply at the February meeting.
     “It is a sad day when an organization that has such a strong public charge disregards the recommendation of their staff and the public and discharges a responsible public servant who has served you faithfully,” one woman said during public comment at the April meeting.
     Since February, the commissioners have bristled at accusations of selling out their charter to private interests, claiming Lester’s dismissal was more attributable to a steady erosion of trust between the commissioners and staff.
     At the April meeting, commissioners vowed to incorporate the public in the search process.
     “I do think we need to be as transparent as possible,” Commissioner Effie Turnbull-Sanders said.
     The commission eventually decided the first step: hiring an official recruitment organization tasked with developing a candidate list and whittling it down to the top few. With the giving itself until August to make that hire, staffers will formulate a scoring criteria in the meantime to evaluate the candidates presented by the search firm.
     Trainer demanded the commission involve environmental and social-justice groups in both the criteria development and candidate interview process.
     Commissioners voiced support for including all interested parties — including those from the development sector — in formulating criteria for the candidates, but stopped short of allowing anyone outside the agency from participating in the interview process.
     California Department of Human Resources deputy director Katie Hagen told the commission that candidates need to be assured of a measure of confidentiality as they proceed through the process. Too many interested parties in the selection process may also lead to an unnecessary protraction of the process, Hagen said.
     “There is no more important decision than the selection of an executive director,” Commissioner Gregory Cox said.

     Moving forward
     For some, however, Cox typifies the public-trust issues facing the commission.
     At the beginning of the April meeting, Cox disclosed he will be fined by the Fair Political Practices Commission for owning stock in SeaWorld Entertainment at a time when the commission decided to approve the theme park’s plans to expand facilities in Chula Vista, California.
     In the meantime, many of those looking to see if Lester’s dismissal represents a shift away from the organization’s populist roots as a coastal-protection agency toward a more development-friendly orientation will have a major opportunity in May.
     Banning Ranch LLC has submitted plans to the commission to construct about 895 houses, a 75-room resort and 75,000 square feet of retail space on a 401-acre site off the Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach. The plans set 280 acres aside for conservation.
     Before his dismissal, Lester said the project applicants repeatedly ignored commission staff’s recommendation to map out the “environmentally sensitive habitat areas” and wetlands on the coastal site — which was formerly a working oil field — and orient their development in a less ecologically invasive manner.
     Commission staff estimates there are about 150 acres of environmentally sensitive habitat areas and about 130 acres of wetlands on the 400-acre parcel.
     In a preview of the looming battle in May, some commissioners challenged whether the environmentally sensitive habitat areas exist at the site, claiming the so-called wetlands are man-made and degraded to the point where they might not be worth protecting.
     “It’s counterintuitive that man-made wetlands get the same protections as natural wetlands,” Commissioner Dayna Bochco said.
     Nevertheless, staff attorneys and ecologists persisted in pointing out that from a legal standpoint, there is no difference in how the Coastal Commission enforces protections related to man-made versus natural wetlands.
     “It’s based in science and it’s based in law,” Commissioner Mary Shallenberger said toward the end of the contentious hearing. “The law is saying it doesn’t matter why it’s a wetland only if it’s a wetland. And it’s our job to uphold the law.”
     Banning Ranch, proposed to be built in the heart of Orange County — which boasts some of the most expensive real estate in the world — is a billion-dollar project by some estimates.
     The developers say the oil production at the site means there is less environmentally sensitive habitat than staff is claiming and unless cleanup operations are performed the site will be continue to be closed to the public.
     The Coastal Commission will next meet May 11-13 at the Newport Beach Civic Center.

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