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Critics Claim Panel Was Unfairly Influenced by Officials : Pleasure Boaters Upset by Air Board's Decision to Rule on Port Issue

July 09, 1987|DEAN MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

Pleasure boaters in Los Angeles Harbor blasted the regional air quality hearing board Wednesday for deciding to rule on a case affecting the Port of Los Angeles despite claims that the board was unfairly influenced during a private luncheon provided by the port.

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"The port wined and dined them, showed them what good fellas they are, and told them how nice everything is going to be in the future," said Harold Struthers, president of the 300-member Los Angeles Harbor Boat Owners Assn. "There was no way they were going to disqualify themselves. That thing was whitewashed before it even started."

The South Coast Air Quality Management District's hearing board voted Tuesday to decide next week whether to shut down Kaiser International, the largest exporter of coke and petroleum in the port. The company has been the source of numerous complaints from boaters, who say that black dust from the facility pollutes the air and damages their boats.

The AQMD staff, citing the boaters' complaints, has refused to issue operating permits to the company, although the company is operating with permits granted to the previous operator of the facility.

Kaiser International denies that it is the source of the black dust and has appealed the staff recommendation to the hearing board. The port, which leases the $23-million facility to the company and receives $2 million a year in tariffs from it, also opposes the shutdown.

At the hearing board meeting Tuesday, the boaters and a nearby resident asked the board to disqualify itself from the case because of the luncheon, which four of the five board members attended last month. The luncheon--which was not open to the boaters or announced to the public--was paid for by the port and included a slide presentation about the port's plans to eventually move the Kaiser International facility.

"Why were you invited if not to be influenced and sold?" asked Beatrice Atwood Hunt, a nearby resident and president of the Coastal and Harbor Hazards Council, a small San Pedro environmental group. "It shocks me to think that you would do that."

Luncheon Called Inappropriate

The hearing board was criticized several weeks ago by James M. Lents, the AQMD's executive officer, for attending the luncheon. Although the port technically is not a party to the case, Lents said the luncheon was inappropriate because the port's ties to Kaiser International are "readily apparent and indisputable."

Lents, who wrote two letters on the issue, said the port should have provided any information to the board at a public hearing.

Lents' criticisms, printed in The Times, outraged the senior member of the AQMD governing body, which appoints both Lents and the hearing board members. Thomas F. Heinsheimer, former president of the governing panel, publicly ridiculed Lents for releasing his correspondence to The Times. Lents said it was a matter of public record.

Lents' criticisms also prompted Coralie Kupfer, the hearing board's chairwoman and legal counsel, to call the meeting Tuesday to decide whether the board should disqualify itself from the case.

Lents, who did not attend the meeting, has said that the board should continue to hear the case despite his concerns about the luncheon. Both Patti Woods Goldberg, the AQMD staff attorney handling the case for Lents, and Steven A. Broiles, an attorney for Kaiser, recommended at the meeting that the board remain on the case.

In announcing why she decided to stay on the case, Kupfer lashed out at both Goldberg and Lents for what she called their unprofessional handling of objections to the luncheon. She described a letter to her from Lents about the luncheon as "both contumacious and scurrilous," and accused Lents and his staff of attempting to "make a media event out of this nonsense."

Denied Impropriety

She denied that the board had done anything improper.

"I personally heard no communication (at the luncheon), and would have stopped the proceedings had I heard anything that any way related to the single issue presented by the appeal, which is whether or not the executive officer in March, 1987, properly denied permit requests from Kaiser," Kupfer said.

Kupfer disputed claims that the luncheon was closed to the public, saying that employees of the Port of Los Angeles who attended it are considered members of the public since they are not a party to the case. Goldberg and a Kaiser International representative also attended the luncheon.

Kupfer demanded an apology from both Lents and Goldberg.

"If this were a court of law, I would fine Ms. Goldberg the sum of $3,000 for contempt and Dr. Lents the sum of $1,000 for contempt," Kupfer said.

Goldberg, who raised the first objections to the luncheon and insisted on paying the cost of her meal, did not apologize. After the hearing, she said she and Lents had "acted very professionally," adding that she disagreed with Kupfer's review of the events. Lents was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

'Public's Interest at Heart'

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