Speak up, governor – is Coastal Commission’s action OK?

An ugly power struggle over whether to fire California Coastal Commission Executive Director Charles Lester comes to a head at a public hearing in Morro Bay on Wednesday.
An ugly power struggle over whether to fire California Coastal Commission Executive Director Charles Lester comes to a head at a public hearing in Morro Bay on Wednesday. The Associated Press

It’s truly unfortunate that the internal power struggle at the California Coastal Commission has degenerated into the confusion that is about to come to a head at Wednesday’s meeting in Morro Bay.

The commission’s director, Charles Lester, is a dignified man. And until membership turnover gave critical mass to the critical views of Commissioner Wendy Mitchell, a political consultant who is said to be Lester’s most vocal detractor, the commission was a fairly dignified body.

Now, because Mitchell’s clientele includes powerful development interests and because Lester was the handpicked successor of one of California’s most beloved environmental heroes, the assortment of complaints on the commission about Lester’s management style has morphed into an alleged fight for the soul of the state’s 1,000-mile coastline.

Depending on who’s talking (off the record), the efforts by Mitchell and her allies to force Lester out are either about a good hire gone bad or a power grab that will destroy the California coast as we know it.

It could be neither, or some of each, or even that Lester and his sometimes morally superior staff just failed to be deferential enough with one too many power-conscious commission bosses, which is our guess. But at this point, the truth has almost ceased to matter.

Some 14,000 letters have come in to the commission, demanding that it retain Lester, including testimonials by nearly 80 environmental groups, 35 former commissioners and more than 150 commission staffers. Having rebuffed commissioners’ private suggestions that he resign quietly and let the board choose a new executive director, Lester has followed the lead of his late mentor and predecessor, Peter Douglas, and invoked his legal right to a public hearing.

Wednesday’s meeting will surely be epic, and personally painful for Lester. The longtime commission staffer and former professor said in a statement to the commission last week that he had taken his job in 2011 in the “hope that I could help to depoliticize the position of the executive director.”

Fat chance of that now. And for that, the blame falls squarely on those pushing so ham-handedly for his ouster, and on Gov. Jerry Brown, who appointed at least two of them and let the polarizing Mitchell, originally appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, stay on the commission.

In an interview with a Sacramento Bee editorial board member, Brown maintained that hiring and firing the executive director is the commission’s business. But it’s intellectually dishonest for the governor to pretend he isn’t entitled even to an opinion on the management of the state’s most influential land-use body.

A lot of Californians trust Brown, whose position on coastal development has long been balanced and nuanced. And a lot of confusion could be cleared up if he said publicly whether he approves of what his appointees are doing.

Otherwise, though hundreds of voices will no doubt be heard at Wednesday’s hearing, no one will hear the one perspective that could put this situation into context – and create even a slim chance that the commission and its furious staff could soon resume the people’s business.

So speak up, governor. Do you really think that what’s going on in your name at the Coastal Commission is OK?