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Sabrina Schiller--Her Crusade for Clean Air Creates a Whirlwind

July 01, 1986|LARRY B. STAMMER | Times Staff Writer

No one has ever doubted Sabrina Schiller's commitment to clean air.

Several months ago, for example, Schiller appeared before the Fontana City Council to lobby for a proposed ride-sharing proposal being considered by the South Coast Air Quality Management District board.

As a member of the AQMD board, Schiller was taking her case directly to the constituents of other AQMD members who opposed the plan and found herself in a confrontation with Councilman Donald F. Day.

Opponents say the exchange that followed is an example of why they want her removed from the AQMD board.

Day: "We have our representatives on the board in (Ontario Mayor) Faye Dastrup and Fazle Quadri. . . . She's telling us they don't know their jobs and she wants to argue with them."

Schiller: "I'm sorry, Mr. Day. That's not correct. If you look at the letters you will see that they are saying they're not taking any position. They're not opposing this regulation."

Day: "I've talked to Mr. Quadri and he said he would not vote for it . . . and Faye Dastrup said she wouldn't. And it's not as if they haven't taken a position."

Schiller: "Well, I'm sorry to hear that that position is out before a public hearing has been held on the issue. I think it's important to listen to all sides."

Day: "Wait a minute. . . . How come we're getting involved in it?"

Schiller: "Because I think it's important that this issue be brought to the constituency."

Both Quadri and Dastrup voted against the ride-sharing plan, which was ultimately defeated.

Since 1972 the actress-turned-activist has railed against polluters, nudged and cajoled air pollution control officials to do more, and grilled industry lobbyists.

Schiller is a leader of the Coalition for Clean Air, a private Santa Monica-based environmental organization, and a state Senate appointee to the AQMD governing board, which is responsible for enacting and enforcing air quality laws in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

Until now, her dual roles as citizen advocate and government enforcer have afforded her a degree of public visibility and policy-making influence enjoyed by few environmentalists.

But Sen. Ruben S. Ayala (D-Chino), an influential member of the upper house, wants her removed from the AQMD because of episodes like the appearance before the Fontana City Council.

Fundamental Issue

As one Senate source observed: "It comes down to a Senate Rules Committee appointee going into a Senate member's district and creating problems."

Additionally, some environmentalists are concerned that Schiller's confrontational tactics sometimes hinder the cause of clean air. The five-member Rules Committee, chaired by Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti (D-Los Angeles), is expected to consider the matter before the Legislature adjourns at the end of August.

Schiller, 42, the mother of two, gave up an acting career in 1972 that included playing opposite William Shatner in television episodes of "Star Trek." She wanted to devote full time to fight for a cause closer to home.

Schiller lives in Pacific Palisades with her husband, television comedy writer Robert Schiller.

She said a smog siege in 1972 shortly after their daughter, Abbie, was born eventually led to a decision to campaign virtually full time for clean air.

"One day I was at home with my baby and I was sitting outside with her, rocking her in a basket chair, and all of a sudden I just became overwhelmed by air pollution. It never happens in the Palisades and I was amazed it could happen.

Concern for Child

"I literally couldn't breathe and I thought, here was this baby in my arms . . . how could she breathe."

She was a member of the now defunct "Stamp Out Smog" and organized its successor group, Project Air, in the mid-1970s. But, her overriding commitment since 1971 has been to the Coalition for Clean Air. In 1977 she became the group's unpaid project coordinator responsible for carrying out the policies of the board. She estimates she has spent between $30,000 and $50,000 in clean-air causes.

She ran for the state Senate in 1976, narrowly losing to a longtime incumbent by 700 votes. Had she won, Schiller would then have been the first woman ever elected to the upper house. She then lost an Assembly race in a special election several months later.

While some legislators have advised her to lie low, Schiller continues to speak out.

Last week, her allies held a press conference urging Roberti not to fire her. Schiller said she was not aware of the press conference until it was too late to stop it. But several days later, the Coalition for Clean Air sent a letter to 1,000 of its members urging them to write the Los Angeles Times and the Rules Committee protesting Ayala's "unwarranted attack on one of our most valuable smog-fighters." Schiller said she knew about the letter, which angered some senators, before it was mailed.

She is unrepentant about putting the spotlight on the voting records of colleagues.

Sees No Harm

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