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Hundreds of protesters fail to stop California Coastal Commissioners from dismissing Lester

Jordan Bell, KCBX News

The California Coastal Commission voted 7-to-5 late Wednesday to dismiss Executive Director Dr. Charles Lester, at the close of a long day of public hearings in Morro Bay.

Demonstrations started early Wednesday morning with hundreds of concerned citizens from throughout the state rallying in front of the city's Community Center. It was all in a failed effort to keep commissioners from firing Lester.

Once the meeting started, crowds cheered as elected officials spoke about the importance of public access to California beaches and keeping Lester in his role.

Jennifer Savage is the California Policy Manager for the Surfrider Foundation, a group that had a large presence at Wednesday's meeting. She told KCBX that public opinion was overwhelmingly in favor of retaining Lester.

"As a sort of ethical stance, if somebody is doing a job really well and they're a competent professional, fulfilling and exceeding the expectations of their employers, they should not be arbitrarily fired," said Savage.

With nearly 500 people in the hearing room, every seat and standing space was occupied. Executive Director Lester gave his opening statement during which he spoke of his childhood, his professional experience and his concerns for California's coast.

Lester said he was "extremely dismayed" to receive the notice that the Commission was going to consider his dismissal this month.

Lester said he was working to expand diversity in the organization and to promote more public access to information. He closed his statement saying that he was going to put his future in the hands of the commissioners.

Public comment lasted many hours and—with the exception of one person—all urged the Commission to keep Lester in his position. Most based their reasoning on his record of upholding the Coastal Act and his vision for the future.

The public also criticized the commissioners for a lack transparency regarding why Lester's job was in question.

Late in the evening, when it was the commission members turn to address many of the concerns and accusations from the crowd, several stressed there would have been more transparency about Lester's performance had the executive director agreed to make his performance reviews public.

"And the one thing I can tell you is that I don't believe the motivation behind how we got here are anything super evil or nefarious," said Commissioner Mary Shallenberger, the first to speak.

Shallenberger said communication issues between Dr. Lester and some commissioners were part of the reason the Coastal Commission considered Wednesday's vote.

"It's really unfortunate that we got here," she said. "And I think that probably, I'm just guessing, I haven't taken a poll, but probably, there's almost no exception up here that commissioners wished, if they knew then what we know now, we might not have gone down this path, but here we are."

Commissioner Dayna Buchco and others criticized the press for creating a conspiracy about commission members beholden to developers.

"It's an internal problem, it was never about developers," said Buchco. "It was never about agents or lobbyists or anything like that.

Buchoc stressed that commissioners have a ten dollar limit on what developers can offer in the form of food, drinks, or gifts.

After addressing the crowd, commissioners went into closed session to deliberate and place their votes for and against Lester. In the end, they returned to the public forum and announced the decision to terminate Lester on a 7-to-5 vote.

The California Coastal Commission will continue to meet in Morro Bay through Friday.