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Fight Against California Coastal Board Isn’t Over

SAN DIEGO (CN) - Alleging a cover-up of the California Coastal Commission's recent firing of its popular executive director Charles Lester, an environmental group has sued the embattled regulator in state court.

The Grassroots Coalition, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, says the commission fired Lester in a closed-door vote and left the public in the dark about why it did it.

Lester had great support from environmental groups, who claimed that the commission fired him to kowtow to developers who want to build on the coast.

The Grassroots Coalition says the Coastal Commission has not responded to its multiple Public Records Act requests for commission for correspondence and emails that came before it fired Lester on Feb. 10.

"Through this lawsuit, Grassroots Coalition seeks documents from the Coastal Commission and each of its commissioners, in an attempt to discover the driving force behind firing a qualified, competent and scandal-free executive director," the complaint states.

The commission voted 7-5 to fire Lester despite more than 10 hours of pro-Lester public comment. About 20,000 public letters were sent on Lester's behalf, and he was supported by prominent environmental groups and state lawmakers.

After the vote behind closed doors, most of the commissioners declined to explain their vote. Several commissioners, however, denied that they had fired Lester to replace him with a more pro-development commissioner, at the behest of development and construction companies.

It didn't take long for lawmakers to respond to the firing. One week after the vote Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins introduced a bill requiring consultants who seek to influence the Coastal Commission to register as lobbyists.

Atkins, who appointed two of the commissioners, called the secret vote "murky," and said her bill would close a loophole that allows lobbyists to petition commissioners without disclosing to the public who they work for.

The Grassroots Coalition called Lester's firing "completely opaque" and said the public should know what prompted the firing of a director who was supported by 99 percent of his staff.

"You cannot completely stonewall the public, withholding all kinds of documents and then complain that the public is suspicious of your motives," Grassroots Coalition president Patricia McPherson said.

Several coastal commissioners complained of a "media conspiracy:" that reporters created the pro-development angle as the reason for Lester's firing.

Commissioner Effie-Turnbull-Sanders said the commission was not "trying to pave over the coast" and that the media reports were false.

Environmentalists and thousands of Californians disagreed, including Steve Jones, with the Center on Biological Diversity.

"The public demanded transparency and hopefully this lawsuit will help provide it. Commissioners should be doing the public's business in public, so we have a right to know who's influencing them and what they're saying," Jones told Courthouse News in an email.

The Grassroots Coalition asks San Diego Superior Court to order the Coastal Commission to release the documents it requested, which were sent from Jan. 21 through Feb. 5.

It is represented by Todd Cardiff and Bryan Pease of San Diego.

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