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O.C. Voice on Smog Panel Is Target of Bill

September 12, 1993|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — In a victory for businesses eager to loosen strict air pollution rules, the state Senate approved legislation early Saturday that could lead to the ouster of Orange County's influential representative on Southern California's air management district.

Acting in the waning hours of the legislative session, the Senate voted 22-3 to approve a bill tailored by conservatives in Orange County who hope to toss out Yorba Linda Councilman Henry W. Wedaa from his post as chairman of the powerful South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Now the effort led by Sen. John R. Lewis (R-Orange) to dump Wedaa from the district board faces one last potential obstacle--Gov. Pete Wilson. Wedaa is the sort of moderate Republican favored by Wilson, who has until Oct. 10 to sign or veto the bill, and hasn't revealed where he stands.

Lewis, however, said he doubts Wilson will scuttle the measure, which was approved at 1:30 a.m. after a brief debate. Wedaa agreed that the governor "has been under great pressure to make political inroads with conservatives--I may well be a sacrificial lamb in this process."

But the barrel-chested councilman remained resolute, saying he will fight hard to remain as Orange County's AQMD representative. If the governor signs the measure, Wedaa will have until March 1 to garner the support of two-thirds of the cities in Orange County or lose his post.

"I intend to run again," Wedaa said. "The Orange County element in Sacramento would like someone more ideologically conservative, but we can't get anything done that way, just as Lewis and others have demonstrated they can't get anything done."

The longtime Yorba Linda councilman has made both friends and foes during his six-year tenure on the air district board. Boosters praise Wedaa's work on behalf of Southern California's air, saluting his willingness as chairman of the AQMD to push balky businesses to clean up their act. But opponents, particularly conservatives in Orange County, suggest he is an overzealous bureaucrat helping drive business out of the region.

Lewis, a longtime critic of the Southland's tough air-quality regulations, has been attempting to get Wedaa off the AQMD for several years. In 1992, a Lewis bill designed to oust Wedaa got through the Senate but failed in an Assembly committee. A similar measure suffered the same fate earlier this year.

The legislation would have eliminated the requirement for a two-thirds vote of Orange County cities to replace the region's representative on the AQMD. Lewis said the vote requirement gave Wedaa, who has served as Orange County's AQMD representative since 1987, a virtual "appointment for life" and argued that a simple majority was sufficient.

Wedaa and other officials at the AQMD argue that the two-thirds rule keeps the board, which makes some of the most politically difficult decisions affecting Southern California, unfettered by "special interests" that might get on with a simple majority. He also suggested continuity on the board is important because "it takes a couple of years just to find the bathrooms" at the AQMD, an agency that routinely handles issues laden with complex scientific and sociological implications.

But his opponents argue that such familiarity breeds problems. They grouse that Wedaa has "gone native," becoming so indoctrinated in the tribe-like bureaucracy of the giant air quality agency that he blindly follows the advice of an AQMD staff he has grown to know and love.

The two-thirds threshold kept Wedaa in power last year during an unsuccessful attempt by disgruntled city representatives to unseat him and appoint Costa Mesa City Councilman Peter F. Buffa, a conservative considered more sympathetic toward the business community. During three different ballots in January, 1992, Buffa failed to get the two-thirds vote necessary to remove Wedaa. Thus, even though Wedaa's term had technically expired, he has remained in the post.

Last week, Lewis turned to a new legislative tack. On Wednesday, he had Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), a close political ally, amend a bill by Sen. Tim Leslie (R-Carnelian Bay) so it would require that Wedaa get a two-thirds vote or forfeit his seat on the AQMD board within 60 days.

Lewis reasoned that he would be meeting the AQMD halfway by keeping the two-thirds vote rule but making Wedaa meet the same tough threshold.

Officials at the AQMD weren't satisfied. They argued that the changes would cast out Wedaa while providing no replacement, noting that the region has been unable to reach a two-thirds consensus on who should be its representative. "We believe the cities of Orange County are effectively being disenfranchised on the South Coast board by this," said Sharon H. Morris, the agency's intergovernmental affairs officer.

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