SACRAMENTO — In a victory for businesses chafing under strict smog rules, Gov. Pete Wilson signed a bill Tuesday that could lead to the ouster of Orange County's influential representative on the Southern California air management board.
Wilson's approval of the measure ensures that Yorba Linda Councilman Henry W. Wedaa, a political moderate, will face a tough fight against conservatives in Orange County to retain his post on the powerful South Coast Air Quality Management District board.
The law changes the vote formula needed to retain a seat on the board.
The longtime councilman has earned 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 that he is an overzealous bureaucrat helping drive business out of the region.
Wedaa called the governor's action a "stupid" decision driven by Wilson's desire to placate conservatives in Orange County before next year's gubernatorial race. The councilman also vowed to battle hard to remain on the AQMD.
"I think it is becoming much clearer to most people this is not a fight about air quality," Wedaa said. "This is a fight about ideology. The fact is I'm a moderate, and the right-wing extremists we have in Orange County don't like that."
Several politicians in Orange County are considering a run against Wedaa, and one former challenger--Costa Mesa Councilman Peter F. Buffa--has already announced his intent to vie again for the seat. Others being mentioned as potential candidates include three councilmen--Richard T. Dixon of Lake Forest; Irvine's Barry J. Hammond; and William S. Craycraft of Mission Viejo.
Sen. John R. Lewis (R-Orange), who led the legislative effort to dump the AQMD chairman, said he sees little chance that Wedaa will remain.
"I think several of those folks are good people, and any one of them would be an improvement," Lewis said. "I think it's going to be difficult for Hank to keep that job. I tend to think he's too controversial to get the vote. But if he can, then he deserves it."
Lewis and a conservative ally, Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), led the effort against Wedaa. Earlier this month, they amended a bill by Sen. Tim Leslie (R-Carnelian Bay) making it harder for Wedaa to remain in power.
Under previous AQMD election rules, an incumbent would retain the job unless a challenger managed to get a two-thirds vote from mayors in Orange County representing two-thirds of the population.
Lewis argued that such a threshold gave Wedaa a virtual "appointment for life."
But under the new rules, Wedaa himself must garner a two-thirds vote by March 1 or forfeit the post.
In recent years, neither Wedaa nor any of his challengers have gotten close to garnering the required two-thirds vote.
Given that history, AQMD officials and several Orange County politicians have expressed concern that the post would be left vacant if a consensus candidate can't be found.