A few weeks ago, the California Coastal Commission did something that has a lot of people pissed. They fired Charles Lester, their Executive Director. Lester was, by nearly all accounts, a man who did his job very well for almost five years. Now, as the commissioners face accusations of being influenced by developers, the CCC may have to show the use of lobbyists and how much money changed hands. The new legislation, which was introduced in Washington on Tuesday, would make the California Coastal Commission subject to the same strict reporting rules that the Legislature is when it comes to lobbying.
“It’s become very, very clear that the influence that certain lobbyists have on the Coastal Commission far outstrips what the general public has,” said Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay), a co-author of the bill.
Before Lester was given his walking papers, he was given a choice: walk out the door on his own, or sit before a panel, let the public speak, and have it come to a vote. As a man who has tirelessly been fighting to protect California’s coastline–which is in his job description–he chose to sit before the panel and let the public speak. And speak they did. Nearly 1000 people showed up to support Lester’s bid to stay in power. After a full day of listening to people singing Lester’s praises, the CCC panel still voted to fire him. It was a shock to nearly everyone involved.
The reasons for his dismissal are weird, to say the least. The New York Times reported that “Mr. Lester had been dismissed because he and his staff had been unresponsive in providing information to commissioners, had nitpicked developers’ legitimate projects and had failed to take steps to ensure that the coastline was accessible to people of all income levels. More important, they said, the commission needed to become more accepting of change and more aggressive in righting shortfalls like an absence of affordable hotels near the coastline.”
In short, Lester wasn’t letting enough development happen on the coastline… which is exactly what he was hired to do. And when people started asking questions about who, exactly, had the power to vote him out, some very fishy things rose to the surface.
Each member of the CCC panel that was appointed by the Governor voted to oust Lester. And at least one has very close ties with both land development companies and the oil and gas industry. Wendy Mitchell worked as Vice President External Affairs for Cadiz Inc, a company that “acquires and develops raw land, primarily in desert regions of southern California, identified as having indigenous water supplies.” She was also Vice President of Government and Public Affairs at Woodside Natural Gas, an Australian oil and gas company. She has consulted for Combined Properties, a California real estate firm that “specializes in the acquisition, development, redevelopment, and value enhancement of shopping centers and mixed-use properties.” And last but not least, she has lobbied for PG&E. She’s not a perfect candidate for someone who wants to protect the coastline for the coastline’s sake.
Previous to the new bill, commissioners of the CCC panel members weren’t accountable to anyone, really, and didn’t have to disclose when they met with paid lobbyists. Wendy Mitchell, at least, agrees with the bill. “The public needs to know more about how decisions are made at the commission, and who is working to influence those decisions,” she wrote in a statement. “It’s clear that we need more transparency when it comes to workings of the Coastal Commission and its staff.”