The uproar over the California Coastal Commission’s firing of its executive director may be misguided.

The executive director since 2011, Charles Lester is, by all accounts, an honest man.   And no one questions his dedication to his work.    But although Lester and other enthusiasts of the Coastal Commission say that the Commission’s “work” is, quite simply, defined by the California Coastal Act, that mandate has been subject to repeated revisions and interpretations, and a wholesale usurpation of authority.   Over the decades the Commission’s jurisdiction has expanded – in all sorts of questionable ways (not always sustained by usually deferential courts).   In some geographic areas the authority of this quasi-judicial agency has extended five miles (as the proverbial crow flies) inland, not remotely near the coast.

Supporters of Mr. Lester suggest a conspiracy of mega-developers who would trample on the spirituality of the pristine coast, laying waste far and wide.   Someone needs to get Bernie Sanders involved, perhaps he can find evidence to implicate Wall Street.  It’s all no doubt a plot by hedge fund managers who are deserting the Hamptons for California beachfront.  

In fact, Mr. Lester, although concerned about possible pro-developer silt, sees the developer vs. environmentalist explanation as an oversimplification.    He acknowledges differences between him and commissioners on so-called “management issues.”   He properly raises the concern of independence.  He is correct: the executive director should not be a lackey who serves the political whims of the commissioners.

Of the twelve commissioners, three groups of four are appointed  –by the Governor (Jerry Brown) the Senate Rules Committee (Kevin de Leon) and the Speaker of the State Assembly (Toni Adkins).     These liberal Democrats are not exactly the folks who do the bidding of the evil Koch brothers.   Of the seven votes for ousting Lester, four were the appointees of Jerry Brown who, as governor from 1975-1983, nurtured the Coastal Commission’s heavy-handed golden years.

When George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson, and Arnold Schwarzenegger were governor, each of them appointed four of the commissioners, the other eight were appointed by Democrats.    Under Jerry Brown’s four terms in office, and under Gray Davis, Democrats appointed all twelve commissioners.

The only exception was in 1996 when Republicans, through a special election, briefly controlled the State Assembly.  My friend Curt Pringle became State Assembly Speaker and he appointed me and three others, giving Republican appointees an eight person majority for perhaps seven or eight months.

Curt courageously appointed me because he knew that I had been a victim of the Coastal Commission, and he thought I could offer a useful perspective in deliberations.   He wanted me to be a leader for reform.  I was not a “developer.”  Six years earlier, I had been trying to build my family home in the Santa Monica Mountains.    Suddenly I found myself the object of a Coastal Commission smear campaign to discredit me.   Its staff, doing the bidding of a zealous Commission member from the area, who later would receive consulting fees for her “environmental” work, generated a letter writing campaign against my “development.”  Area activists from central casting were mobilized to fabricate “facts.”  I felt like witnesses were being recruited against me for a Stalinist style show trial.   My hearing was a farce.   And later, when the stakes were higher for all concerned, a ranking Commission staff member filed a sworn declaration that she had personally reviewed certain “conditions of development” with me at the commission office in Long Beach.  I had never met her or even been at the office.

Once I was appointed, Coastal Commission executive director Peter Douglas came to see me.  I thought of the irony. Here he was looking at all the oak trees that his staff claimed I had destroyed.   During the short time that I served as one of the twelve members the Coastal Commission, I would find Peter courteous and responsive.  But I knew, despite the gentlemanly image of an even temperament that was part of the Coastal Commission’s veneer, the practices and deliberations of the Commission were not about fairness and due process.   Peter’s stewardship of the staff was imperial, and I learned of dissatisfaction among some staff members.  Still they were soldiers in Peter’s ideological war and would not come forward with their complaints.

I knew that the kangaroo court against me had not been an exception, and as a commissioner I saw the same modus operandi, particularly in executive session. As commissioners we were “papered” well in advance of the two or three day public hearings; we could not possibly be adequately prepared for the overwhelming agenda.  The deck was stacked against the applicants for a coastal permit for “development.” The Coastal Commission staff asserted it recommended approval of the vast majority of “projects.”  But this was like an unethical district attorney enforcing a plea bargain for someone to go to jail for a lesser offense he did not do, to avoid a draconian punishment for the initial trumped up charge.    The staff so intimidated applicants who, even with lawyers, were no match for the endless delays that applicants made drastic concessions just to finally move ahead.

All that said, I really don’t know what it’s like today.  But I remember vividly what it was like for me and other applicants, and also what I as a Coastal Commissioner discovered in reading hundreds or thousands of pages monthly in preparation for hearings in executive and public session and I what I observed at those hearings.

Peter Douglas was contemptuous of private property rights.  He did not take the U.S. Constitution seriously, because he had no revenue to fund the Fifth Amendment “takings” of property (by the depreciating effect of onerous “conditions” for development) to suit his interpretation of the Coastal Act.   When I served as a Member of the Coastal Commission, I met some fair and competent staff members, but overall I saw a staff-dominated Romanian tribunal.   Mr. Lester says the executive director should be independent, but what about the staff?  I did not see any evidence a staff member could dissent significantly on a major matter from its executive director, then Peter Douglas, and have a future there.  Hopefully, things were different under Mr. Lester.   From years ago I recall that on important issues, it was top-down – here’s the conclusion Peter Douglas wants to reach, the staff must find a way to reach that conclusion.   How odd then, to read in the Los Angeles Times that one opponent of Mr. Lester’s ouster complained in public to the Commission: “it just felt like the decision was made long go, and no matter what happened, it wasn’t going to change.

And liberals in Malibu with Hollywood connections seemed to have an “in” with the Coastal Commission.  And former staff members from the commission later became expediters or consultants for applicants.  Here’s what I generally observed: many permit applicants without connections were even more likely to plead guilty, in effect, to crimes against the state (“the environment”), and then atone by meeting certain “conditions of development.”  It was not uncommon for the Coastal Commission to delay applications for months and even years.  Some of this relates to workload, many staff members were overworked.   But a big part of the delay related to arrogance, and to contempt for the applicant.  And I saw delays that were tactical – make the process so time-consuming and costly, keep postponing a hearing, or schedule it elsewhere in the state, that the permit applicant would finally make absurd concessions to end the agony, or even give up entirely.

So much was cloaked in procedure and legalese, but it was all a cynical game.  For the big boy developers, it was a cost of doing business.  For a homeowner seeking a permit to build or remodel, the delays could break him or her financially.

Politics aside, how can we justify the same person presiding as executive director of a government agency for 34 years, as Peter Douglas did?  This is not good government.   Even liberals should have wanted a periodic change of executive directors so that one man would not have so much power.  And from a managerial approach, it makes sense every few years, or certainly every decade, to have in a powerful government agency a new leadership style, and new ideas.

All this said, I did not vote to oust Peter Douglas back in 1996.  I did not get appointed as part of a grudge.  I wanted to see firsthand, as a Coastal Commissioner, if things were as bad from that end as they were for me, as an applicant, or should I say supplicant.   But the four new Pringle commissioners were under pressure from people close to Gov. Pete Wilson, a friend I respected, to end Peter’s reign.   Peter had run afoul of the Wilson orbit on a major project.  But I didn’t care about any one project; I cared about the big picture.

Worse, Gov. Wilson’s four appointees had months earlier given Douglas a good performance review that I thought reflected their expedient and poor judgment.   I and the other Pringle appointees felt Douglas would become a martyr if we participated in the same kind of kangaroo court to fire Peter that characterized the Coastal Commission itself.  Give us a few months so that we could feel comfortable in reaching a conclusion whether and how to replace the executive director…and make a plausible case that his ouster was not rigged.

That brings us – fully two decades later, to the ouster of Charles Lester who has been executive director for five years.  Peter Douglas recommended him.  So perhaps he was not the breadth of fresh air who could provide a house cleaning.  I don’t know.  Are permit applicants still treated with disrespect by staff?  Have there been reforms, or do we still have the staff manipulation, along with the tactical delays, lack of follow-up, and the unreturned phone calls

Peter Douglas was the consummate infighter. He had allies in the State Legislature, even in Congress, and in the media and in universities.  And also among all sorts of constituencies:  the environmentalist cult worshipped at his altar and they came to support him and his possible martyrdom twenty years ago.    Similarly, many of their protégés came last week to support  Charles Lester.   But this time, they can’t claim it’s a Republican plot.    Wendy Mitchell is a Brown appointee who says she is committed to the Coastal Act.  Mitchell voted to fire Lester.   Mitchell said about Mr. Lester what could well have been said about Peter Douglas:   “The coast is not saved by one person.”

Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist who authored two graduate level textbooks on politics and media.  He is a court-recognized expert on political campaigns, opinion research and advertising.  He has been appointed to federal, state and local boards.