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San Diego Delegate Weighs Future Of Coastal Commission

San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox at the 2014 State of the County Address.

Aired 2/8/16 on KPBS News.

San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox represents San Diego on the California Coastal Commission. Given a push to fire the executive director this week, Cox discussed changes he'd like to see the commission make.

The controversy currently rocking the California Coastal Commission is the possibility that the board might dismiss its executive director, Charles Lester.

The suggestion has prompted an outpouring of support for Lester from environmental organizations that believe the move is the result of pressure from developers.

State elected officials have also protested in a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown, and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution saying Lester's ouster "would undermine the stability of the commission, while simultaneously further compromising its ability to effectively carry out its mission."

San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox has been San Diego’s representative on the Coastal Commission since September 2013.

In an interview last week, Cox would not address the possible firing of Lester.

RELATED: California Coastal Commission Chief Defends His Work Amid Ouster Attempt

Cox said he would not be able to attend the commission's meeting Wednesday in Morro Bay, where Lester's fate will be weighed in a public hearing.

California Coastal Commission

California Coastal Commission Executive Director Charles Lester is shown in this undated photo.

Cox has attended some of the evaluation sessions of Lester and discussed some of the changes he'd like to see at the commission, including the qualities needed for the executive director.

“You need a strong administrator,” Cox said. “Somebody that can set out an agenda, somebody that can inspire staff. Obviously, I think trying to make sure that the staff is reflective of California, in regards to the diversity of the staff.”

Cox would not elaborate on whether he thought the staff is not diverse enough to reflect the state's diversity.

Asked if the issues related to Lester’s leadership are more ideological or managerial, Cox said, “The concerns that I’ve heard expressed are more managerial.”

Local coastal plans

In his 2½ years on the commission, Cox said he’s been frustrated by how slowly things move, specifically getting local jurisdictions to complete the Local Coastal Programs.

The importance of LCPs is explained in a backgrounder on Cox’s website:

“California Public Resources Code requires local governments to prepare a Local Coastal Program (LCP) for that portion of the coastal zone within its jurisdiction. Absent a certified LCP, the California Coastal Commission maintains authority to review and issue coastal development permits. A certified Local Coastal Program would facilitate the permitting process by taking the requirement to seek approval from the Coastal Commission out of the process. Once an updated LCP is certified by the Coastal Commission, public projects like development of the California Coastal Trail or private developments in the coastal zone can be considered locally.”

"This is 2016 — 40 years after the Coastal Act was approved," Cox said. "And yet there’s 106 different local coastal plan segments up and down the coast of California, and we’ve got something like 32 of them that still have not been completed.

"There are a lot of reasons for that," he said. "Some of the jurisdictions have figured, 'Why should we make the tough decisions? Let’s make the Coastal Commission make those decisions.'"

Cox pointed to extra money in the state budget for the commission: $2 million a year over the past three years, he said, designed to encourage local jurisdictions to develop their own Local Coastal Programs.

Sea-level rise

The bluffs at Del Mar Shores in Solana Beach, Jan. 12, 2016.

One of the reasons LCPs will become increasingly significant is the impending sea-level rise, which will make many California coastal cities face hard decisions about public and private projects — either already built or proposed — that could be threatened.

"Climate change and sea-level rise is a game changer," Cox said. "And some of those coastal plans were approved 30, 35 years ago, so there ought to be some kind of systematic review for those plans. They need to be updated and modified based on changing conditions and laws."

Cox said he was surprised to discover San Diego County’s coastal plan — passed in 1984 — had not been updated.

"We got a $50,000 Local Coastal Plan grant last year," Cox said. "We hope to have it done by this time next year."

The commission has spent two years working on sea-level rise guidelines for local jurisdictions, Cox said.

"Dr. Lester is a very smart individual. He deserves a lot of credit for work that staff did to put together the sea-level rise guidelines," Cox said. "He did a remarkable job there."

But the county supervisor is frustrated that those guidelines have not led to more LCPs.

"So that the cities and the counties in California would take the primary responsibilities for approving developments in their coastal areas," he said.

Cox said other commissioners have different concerns about Lester.

"Different commissioners have different perceptions about what he should be doing and what priorities should be made, and that decisions that are made in one area of California are consistent with decisions made in other areas," Cox said.

However, his main concern is local control, which shifts power away from the commission.

"The commission will be kept busy dealing with amendments and modifications of Local Coastal Plans, but the primary authority should be back at the local level," Cox said. "If they have projects coming in that are consistent with those Local Coastal Plans, those decisions should be made at the local level."

Cox said he hoped the San Diego Association of Governments "can be persuaded to take a more leading role in bringing the 10 coastal cities, the county, the Port District and the Airport Authority" together to decide how to deal with sea-level rise.

Because Cox is unable to attend Wednesday’s Coastal Commission meeting, his alternate, Escondido City Councilwoman Olga Diaz, will be there to represent San Diego.

Diaz did not respond to questions about her intentions when she attends the Morro Bay meeting at which Lester’s position will discussed.

It's her decision whether she will participate in the discussion, Cox said.

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