SAN DIEGO (CN) – An environmentalist group that sued the California Coastal Commission last year over the agency’s ouster of its executive director has settled the case out of court.
The Grassroots Coalition, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, sued the commission claiming the state agency did not respond to multiple Public Records Act requests for correspondence and emails ahead of its firing of executive director Charles Lester on Feb. 10, 2016.
The group had hoped the documents would “show the driving force behind firing a qualified, competent and scandal-free executive director” in a closed-door vote after a marathon public hearing where virtually dozens of people spoke in support of Lester.
According to a settlement agreement obtained by Courthouse News, the Coastal Commission will now issue official email addresses for commissioners to use when conducting business on behalf of the commission.
When Grassroots Coalition had filed records requests last year, one of the reasons the commission gave for not providing all email communications was that it lacked control over commissioners’ personal email accounts and devices and could not provide communications from those accounts.
The commission also agreed to pay attorney’s fees to the plaintiffs’ attorneys Bryan Pease and Todd Cardiff of San Diego, amounting to at least $36,000.
Under the terms of the settlement, the commission does not admit any wrongdoing.
Cardiff said in a phone interview the Grassroots Coalition is pleased the lawsuit led the commission to adopt an official email policy for commissioners, which he said will help settle the fallout the agency experienced last year over unreported ex parte communications involving members of the public and developers hoping to persuade the commission to approve their projects on the coast.
He said they did receive some of Lester’s personnel records and communications between the commissioners but that the documents were “not significant.”
Lester now teaches at University of California, Santa Cruz, Cardiff said.
The attorney also said the lawsuit put pressure on the former commissioners who were the “ringmasters” behind Lester’s ousting, Wendy Mitchell and Martha McClure.
Mitchell resigned from her six-year post as commissioner late last year in a letter sent to Gov. Jerry Brown, who had appointed her to the commission. She was replaced by Donne Brownsey, an attorney.
McClure, a former Del Norte County supervisor, lost a reelection bid to keep her supervisor seat last year. As a result, her commission seat representing the North Coast counties of Humboldt, Del Norte and Mendocino expired after her board term ended late last year.
Cardiff said McClure’s involvement in Lester’s ousting became a campaign issue during her reelection bid and was a major reason she lost.
McClure’s position was filled last week, when Brown appointed Humboldt County Supervisor Ryan Sundberg to fill the vacancy. He is the first Native American to serve on the Coastal Commission.
Former commission chairman Steve Kinsey’s position was vacated when he decided not to run for reelection to the Marin County Board of Supervisors, and was filled by San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin.
They join newly appointed executive director Jack Ainsworth, a longtime Coastal Commission staffer who served as the acting executive director for a year following Lester’s firing.
Four additional commissioner spots will be up for grabs this May, as Commissioners Mary Shallenberger, Carole Groom, Roberto Uranga and Greg Cox will be termed out.