With the California Coastal Commission meeting in Sonoma this week, the Center has published a new article exploring structural tensions built into the 44-year old regulatory agency – tensions that came to a head in February with the controversial firing of Executive Director Charles Lester.
In his article “Tides of Tension,” Todd Holmes, a historian and postdoctoral scholar at the Center since 2013, describes the heated scene in Morro Bay as the commissioners voted – for the first time in the agency’s history – to depose their administrator.
Anger pierced the room following the announcement. Some hurled insults at the commissioners; others sat in their seats and cried. And in the wake of the Commission’s Morro Bay meeting, this anger continued to simmer. Many charged that Lester’s dismissal was a “power grab” by political appointees in the effort to wrest further control away from an independent staff.
— From “Tides of Tension”
Holmes follows with a provocative question: does the firing of a respected administrator by political appointees suggest the “capture” of the Commission by the very development industries it is intended to regulate? “Tension, rather than capture,” Holmes suggests instead, “best explains the events that erupted at Morro Bay — a tension that long preceded Charles Lester’s tenure, and one inherent within the structure of the commission itself.”
Holmes points out that – by design – the Coastal Commission is composed of two autonomous, at times competing, bodies: the commission (12 members appointed in equal proportion by the Governor, Assembly, and Senate) and a staff of expert civil servants. And throughout the agency’s history, tension has increasingly flared between the agency’s staff and appointed commissioners. The article provides an engaging history of the four executive directors who steered the agency during its existence – sometimes into fierce headwinds. In this context, Lester’s firing was not anomaly, but a product of the tides of tension that has afflicted the agency for decades.
The article reflects extensive research that Holmes has conducted over the last two years at the Center, exploring the Commission’s history, conducting extensive archival research and collaborating with the Bancroft Library’s Oral History Center at UC Berkeley. Later this month, Todd wil be joining the Oral History Center as its new historian and academic specialist, while remaining an affiliated scholar with the Bill Lane Center.
“Tides of Tension” represents part of Center’s larger effort, the California Coastal Commission Project, which seeks to trace the origins and long-term performance of the 44-year-old agency, the first and only in California to be created by a popular vote. As part of the project, the Center’s Iris Hui has analyzed the agency’s permit decisions from 1994 to 2014. Her February paper discussed the negotiation process and approval rate of projects submitted to the Commission during this 18-year period, which averaged around 80 percent. Often discussed within the tones of obstructionism and environmental activism, research by the Bill Lane Center has revealed a more nuanced and complex picture of one of California’s most powerful agencies and its regulation of the most desired coastline in the Western Hemisphere.