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On February 10 in Morro Bay, the California Coastal Commission (CCC) fired its executive director Charles Lester. For any government body to fire the boss is exceedingly rare, and this case should prove educational for all Californians. For one thing, what Lester had done wrong remained unclear.
On his watch, no major environmental disaster took place along the coast, and commissioners dismissed rumors the action was some kind of coup by developers. Indeed, Lester was the favored successor of late Peter Douglas, the regulatory zealot who played a major role in establishing the Commission and served as its executive director for 26 years. On Lester’s watch the Commission aimed to expand its regulatory reach and intruded into animal management and surfing tournaments. Yet, the CCC boss duly got the axe. That marks a stark contrast to another powerful state agency.
The California Department of Transportation Caltrans, oversaw construction of the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. This bridge came in $5 billion over budget, a full 10 years late, and riddled with safety issues such as broken rods and faulty welds. Mark DeSaulnier, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, decided to hold hearings on the matter in January 2014. Witnesses testified that Caltrans, compromised public safety by ignoring problems with welds, bolts and rods. DeSaulnier cited “a deliberate and willful attempt to obfuscate what is happening to the public.” One whistleblower called for a “criminal investigation,” but none took place.
DeSaulnier, now a congressman, is on record that “there’s never been anyone in the management of the bridge who has been held accountable.” So Californians have good reason to wonder if any accountability exists at powerful state agencies.
The Coastal Commission shows that it is possible to get rid of the boss, but one doubts that much will be different under the new executive director, who has yet to emerge. Commission supporters are pushing for another regulatory zealot, and voters will have no say in the selection process. What voters need is the opportunity to make the call on the Commission itself, a body that runs roughshod over property rights. The duly elected city and county governments along California’s 1,000-mile coast are entirely capable of making their own land-use decisions.