Amid intense public scrutiny over the ousting of its executive director, the California Coastal Commission is moving forward with a temporary leader.
The commission named an interim executive director during its meeting Wednesday at the Civic Auditorium in Santa Monica after numerous environmental activists and area residents criticized the panel for its recent dismissal of Charles Lester.
The commission voted 10-1 to put the reins of the agency in the hands of senior deputy director Jack Ainsworth. Along with chief deputy director Susan Hansch, he has been leading the organization since Lester was axed at a marathon meeting Feb. 10 in Morro Bay.
“This has been a very difficult month,” Ainsworth said. “I’ve had to get up to speed very quickly. The consequence of this is significant. Things are going to take a little longer, but we’re doing our best to move forward.”
Staff have suggested Ainsworth’s term to expire Dec. 8 or when a new executive director begins work, whichever comes first. The selection process for a new commission head is expected to take at least six months, officials said.
Many commissioners expressed support for Ainsworth, saying he’ll provide stability for the entity and its staff during a turbulent transition. But there was debate over whether Ainsworth should be allowed to apply for the long-term position.
Roberto Uranga, the only commissioner to vote against Ainsworth’s appointment, said Ainsworth shouldn’t be considered for the permanent position. Commissioner Effie Turnbull-Sanders said the agency must put up “a sufficient firewall” so Ainsworth doesn’t have undue influence if he decides to apply for the position.
Ainsworth said he hasn’t decided whether he’ll seek the long-term role.
Meanwhile, the fallout over the firing of Lester spilled over from last month’s meeting in Morro Bay. Activists and private citizens are worried that the departure of Lester signals that the commission will eschew preservation and conservation in favor of more development along California’s coastline.
At the most recent meeting, the Grassroots Coalition announced the filing of a lawsuit against the commission and each member of the entity. The group is seeking more information on the firing of Lester, whom it saw as a steward of the environment.
Todd Darling, a member of the Venice Neighborhood Council’s land use and planning committee, said he’s worried about future development along the state’s shores.
“We’re faced with a level of privatization of the coast that is of great concern,” he said.
Wendy Mitchell, one of the seven commissioners who voted to dismiss Lester last month, prepared a lengthy explanation for her decision at Wednesday’s meeting. She was repeatedly interrupted by chair Steve Kinsey, who said her comments were inappropriate for that time.
“While it’s easy to [portray the scenario] as good versus evil, that was not the case,” she said while being heckled by attendees. “This situation was caused not by special interests, not by staff and not by commissioners. … We found ourselves in an untenable position. We did take bold leadership for what we thought was best for the coast.”
Mitchell, Uranga, Turnbull-Sanders, Mark Vargas, Olga Diaz, Erik Howell and Martha McClure voted to dismiss Lester. Kinsey, Mary Shallenberger, Dayna Bochco, Carole Groom and Mary Luevano favored keeping him.
Kinsey thanked Lester for his knowledge and dedication and wished him well in his future endeavors. Lester is currently on leave and will be back at the end of the month, an official said. It has not yet been determined what civil service position he’ll hold when he returns.
“We’re not going to find our way by continually rehashing events of the last month,” Kinsey said. “Many emotions are rolling around like a royal surf. … We have our work cut out for us. It’s our time to find common ground and stand firmly on it.”