After upheaval, California Coastal Commission selects veteran insider as new head

After a tumultuous year that included allegations of undue influence from wealthy developers and the firing of a popular leader, the California Coastal Commission has selected a new executive director.

Jack Ainsworth, a career commission employee who has served as the acting executive director since his boss was fired last February, has been awarded the top spot, the agency announced Friday night.

Ainsworth, 59, has worked at the commission for nearly 30 years. 

“Jack’s depth of understanding of coastal issues, the challenges confronting this agency and his steady leadership over the last year has thoroughly impressed us,” said Dayna Bochco, chair of the commission, which voted unanimously to appoint Ainsworth.

The commission, which was created by voter initiative in 1972, is responsible for preventing over-development on California’s 1,100 miles of oceanfront — some of the most scenic and valuable real estate in the nation.

Last year’s firing of Ainsworth’s predecessor, Charles Lester, sparked fierce protests from California environmentalists.

They accused Gov. Jerry Brown of stocking the commission with developer-friendly appointees and removing Lester because he stood in the way of construction plans up and down the coast.

When the commission offered Lester a chance to step aside quietly, he turned them down, setting up a very public showdown. The commission received more than 20,000 emails and letters on the subject, including one signed by 153 commission staff members in opposition to Lester’s removal.

Lester's supporters claimed his ouster coincided with looming decisions on a large desalination plant in Huntington Beach and Banning Ranch, a plan for hundreds of homes, a hotel and commercial development on 401 acres overlooking Newport Beach.

Commissioners appointed by Brown insisted they wanted Lester out because of poor management, not because they intended to take more developer-friendly positions.

A news release Friday evening announcing Ainsworth’s appointment said the commission had conducted an extensive, nationwide search for a new leader, contacting more than 1,000 potential candidates, before settling on their acting executive director.

“I am honored and humbled by this decision,” Ainsworth said in the release. “I want the people of California to know that I will do my best every day to protect the coast for everyone.”

Susan Jordan, the executive director of the environmental group California Coastal Protection Network, described Ainsworth as an excellent choice with a strong institutional memory. She said he showed his mettle as the temporary head of the agency.

“He brought a very calm hand,” Jordan said. “I think he inspired trust with the commissioners and his staff and he brought them through a storm…. At this point, this is what the agency needs.”

Jordan said she believes the veteran insider will be able to guide the agency if it winds up battling the Trump administration, especially over offshore drilling.

“Our coast is one of the most import resources we have,” she said. “We need someone who knows the agency and can be a steady hand as we face this difficult period.”

Jordan said she was impressed with how Ainsworth handled the Banning Ranch project.

Shortly before the commission’s vote last fall, Ainsworth’s staff said the development’s footprint needed to shrink to avoid destroying foraging habitat for burrowing owls that winter on the land -- eliminating the hotel, a road from Pacific Coast Highway and roughly 400 residences.

In the end, the commission denied the developer’s proposal altogether.

“He really tried to work with the developer, but he was also very clear where the law drew lines about what you’re allowed and what you’re not allowed to do,” Jordan said. “That’s the kind of leadership you want.”

Jennifer Savage, the California policy manager for the Surfrider Foundation, also welcomed Ainsworth’s promotion. She described him as a consensus builder who has managed to diffuse tensions over controversial issues such as a proposal to impose parking fees at beaches in Sonoma County.

“He’s very calm and very engaging, so a lot of the drama falls away,” Savage said.

Ainsworth grew up in San Bernardino. He has a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and geography from Cal State San Bernardino and a master’s degree in geography from UC Riverside.

As executive director, Ainsworth will make $165,432 a year and be based in San Francisco, according to the news release.

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