While difficult economic times are not far removed from our collective consciousness, Californians as a whole are feeling optimistic about how things are going in the state. Generally speaking, when economic times are good, Californians are more willing to take affirmative, collective action for the common good. In particular, at times like these we expect to see concerted action on improving the environment, whether through water conservation (a big topic these days), regulating greenhouse gas emissions, or other air quality improvement measures.
So it came as a complete shock when we learned that Barry Wallerstein, the long-standing Executive Officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District (the AQMD) - the agency responsible for providing breathable air in the Nation's most polluted region - was unceremoniously fired from his post. What had caused his sudden ouster? Was there some scandal at the AQMD on Mr. Wallerstein's watch? No. Was the air quality in the LA Basin deteriorating, due to some AQMD ineptitude that was laid at Mr. Wallerstein's feet? Nope. So what changed? What was behind Mr. Wallerstein being sacked? In a word: politics.
This is not good!
A Bit of Background
Before I go further, a bit of background. In the early nineties I was the Director of Clean Air Programs for a statewide non-profit environmental organization. In that role I was a frequent participant at AQMD workshops and Board Meetings, first in El Monte and later in Diamond Bar, trying to push the staff and the Board to do more to protect public health.
The early nineties was a time of recession, and its lingering effects emboldened many polluting interests to lobby heavily against the allegedly "job killing regulations" coming from the AQMD. For the relatively small cadre of environmental activists who engaged in that debate, we were generally outnumbered and always outgunned. When I or one of my colleagues would address the Board, it was not uncommon for us to be booed by industry allies in the audience. We referred to it as "getting dissed at the District."
Are we headed back to this?
Barry Wallerstein was a senior staff member during my tenure, not yet the Executive Officer, and far from an environmental booster. More often than not, we were arguing against positions taken by Mr.Wallerstein. Far too often, in our view, he adopted the position advocated by industry at the expense of the environment.
This is the man that the new Board deems too enviro-friendly to continue in his post?
How did this happen?
Meet the AQMD Board
The short answer is that a recent change in AQMD Board membership gave the Republicans on the Board a 7-6 majority. But to really understand what is going on here, you need to know who is on the Board and how they voted. Here's the tally, along with a link to their bio page and the source of their appointment:
|Source of Appointment
|Dr. William Burke
|Speaker of the Assembly
|LA County Board of Supervisors
|Cities of Riverside County
|Riverside County Board of Supervisors
|City of Los Angeles
|Cities of LA County, Eastern Region
|Dr. Joseph Lyou
|Cities of San Bernardino County
|Cities of LA County, Western Region
|Orange County Board of Supervisors
|Dr. Clark Parker, Sr.
|Senate Rules Committee
|Cities of Orange County
|San Bernardino Board of Supervisors
One thing here is unlike the others. All of the sources for pro-business votes - the cities and county representatives of Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino - voted against clean air and for the polluters. All of the sources for pro-enviroment votes, save one - i.e., the cities of LA County, the Democrat-dominated legislature and governor's office - voted for protecting the environment. So who is the odd man out? That would be LA County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, a true dinosaur on environmental issues - who has been on the AQMD Board since my days appearing there!
Blame the LA Supes
How can that be? The LA County Board of Supervisors is 3-2 Democratic, and has been since 1993. So how on earth has Mr. Antonovich managed to remain as the representative of the millions of people in LA County before their most important local public health agency when he routinely votes - as he did here - against their best interests? Are the three Democrats on the Board just too lazy to take on the job themselves, happy to leave the AQMD workload to Mr. Antonovich, even if it imperils the health of their constituents?
We decided to find out, so we sent the three Democrats on the Board this email:
Dear Supervisor —
I run a small business in LA County and am also the author of a blog, Thoughts on Solar, regarding the solar industry. I am preparing a post regarding the recent firing of AQMD Executive Officer Barry Wallerstein and I would like an answer to the following question — your response to which will be included in my post:
The LA County Board of Supervisors has a Democratic majority and has had since 1993. Yet for all of that time, Supervisor Antonovich has represented the County's millions of residents before the AQMD Board where he has been a reliable vote in favor of polluters and to the detriment of the health and well-being of your constituents, including his most recent vote to oust long-standing Executive Officer Barry Wallerstein. So why is it that Mr. Antonovich has been allowed to remain as the County's representative to the AQMD Board?
Thank you for your consideration; I look forward to your reply.
That email was sent to the offices of Hilda Solis (First District), Mark Ridley-Thomas (Second District), and Sheila Kuehl (Third District). Only Ms. Kuehl's office bothered to respond, and her spokeswoman's response was terse in the extreme:
Thanks for reaching out to our office. Supervisor Antonovich is serving a fixed term and there will be a new appointment in December.
Director of Communications
Office of LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl
Of course, her response doesn't address the question posed (though it is better than no response at all), but it does highlight an important fact. After a lifetime on the Board, Mr. Antonovich is finally termed out this November. Moreover, the other Republican on the Board, Don Knabe, is also termed out. Under the election rules, if a candidate gains an outright majority of the vote in the June 7th primary, they are elected. Otherwise the top two finishers face off in the November general election.
Despite their enormous power, elections for County Supervisor tend to be down-ballot snoozers with very little public scrutiny of the candidates. Once elected, as with Mr. Antonovich, they have largely remained in office for decades. Hopefully this year will be different. Given the enormous stakes for public health in the home of the Nation's most polluted air, the outcome of the Supervisorial elections - and the subsequent appointment of the LA County representative to the AQMD board - is of the highest importance.
This is not a political newsletter, but this issue is just too important to everyone who lives and breathes in this Basin to ignore. We intend to return to the issue and seek to make representation on the AQMD Board an issue in the upcoming campaign. Watch this space.