The California Coastal Commission, by some accounts the most powerful land-use agency in the nation, is a squad of regulatory zealots that menaces property rights. On the other hand, this unelected body has now set a good example for powerful federal bureaucracies.
On February 10 in Morro Bay, the 12 coastal commissioners voted seven to five to fire the Commission’s executive director, Charles Lester. What, if anything, Lester had done wrong during his four and a half year reign did not emerge.
Commissioners dismissed news reports that the action was some kind of coup by rapacious developers. Commission chair Steve Kinsey told reporters the dismissal “revolved around leadership,” but Lester’s many supporters had to wonder.
On Lester’s watch the Commission expanded its regulatory reach into animal management and surfing tournaments, and now casts an eye toward inland landfills. On the other hand, since Lester took over, California’s coastline has suffered no major environmental disasters. That marks a stark contrast to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, whose reach covers the nation.
Last August the EPA’s own contractors were responsible for spilling three million gallons of toxic waste into Colorado’s Animas River. As the Washington Post noted, “the spill raised levels of arsenic, lead and other toxins for dozens of miles through southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico.” The spill, which turned the river orange-yellow for miles, came at a time when the EPA “is battling Western states over new regulations for water and air pollution.”
EPA chief Gina McCarthy described the spill as “a heartbreaking situation.” The 2009 Obama appointee said, “We are going to be transparent and collaborative in making sure people have the information they need.” McCarthy was also on record that “the river seems to be restoring itself.”
That seemed an attempt to minimize the damage. Observers may also have noted that for all her grief Gina McCarthy suffered no personal damage. She duly kept her job as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
If a toxic spill of this magnitude did not get the EPA boss fired, one wonders what, if anything, would prompt such a dismissal. Residents of Colorado and New Mexico had a right to wonder if federal agencies are off-limits to accountability and reform.
Congress should take a hard look at oversight policies in all federal agencies. If the person who appointed the boss won’t step up, some body, internal or external, should be empowered to dismiss the leader. California’s Coastal Commission shows it can be done.
No major toxic spill took place on Charles Lester’s watch, but he got the axe for issues that probably amount to petty bureaucratic infighting. One doubts that much will be different under the new executive director, who has yet to emerge.
The problem is the Commission itself. This body is a classic example of government becoming progressively more intrusive, more expensive, and less responsive to the people.
The duly elected city and county governments along California’s 1,100-mile long shoreline are entirely capable of making their own land-use decisions. Residents don’t need an unelected Commission, but they could use an opportunity to give this powerful agency an existential problem.
Firing the boss is a good move, but don’t stop there. Eliminate an unelected body that threatens property rights and imposes onerous regulation. Now that would be leadership the whole nation could believe in.
Lloyd Billingsley is a policy fellow and communications counsel for the Independent Institute. He is the author of Bill of Writes: Dispatches from the Political Correctness Battlefield, and the new crime book Shotgun Weddings.