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HEARTS of the CITY | Essay / ROBERT A. JONES

Air War

May 14, 1997|ROBERT A. JONES

We have a mystery here. Another of Southern California's grand old institutions appears to be joining the ranks of the halt and the lame. But this time, no one knows why.

Well, that's not exactly right. There's people who know plenty, but they ain't talking. It's we the people who don't know nuthin'.

The institution is the AQMD, the most famous air pollution agency in the world. Just this month it threw a big bash celebrating its pioneering leadership in smog-fighting over the last 50 years. Everyone from Gov. Pete Wilson to President Clinton sent kudos.

Then, last Friday, the board of the AQMD effectively fired the top tier of management. Contract renewals were denied for James M. Lents, the executive director, and five of his top lieutenants. Their contracts expire July 31, so they're outta here on that date unless the board has a change of heart.

You might be guessing that Lents and his troops fell to the swords of big and small business, which have long rankled under the AQMD's rules.

But no. Before the firing, several business groups appealed to the board to keep Lents and his team, saying the AQMD has become "fair" and "balanced" under his 10-year guidance.

God help us when the oil refiners and power plant operators start describing an air pollution agency "balanced." Nonetheless, they were speaking a truth that has become well-known in air pollution circles, namely that the AQMD now mostly dances to a business tune when it comes to air pollution.

"We don't hold the cards anymore," admits Gail Feuer, an environmental lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The balance of power shifted about five years ago and stayed there."

So why did the AQMD board boot out the administration and push the agency toward the chaos of the LAPD, the MTA, the DWP, and the Board of Education, to name a few of our floundering and deconstructing institutions? We are left to guess from the tidbits sprinkled by board members.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich, whose presence on the AQMD board proves once and for all that God does not play fair, was a leader of the get-Lents contingent. He says the executive director went down because "he did the ideological two-step to the command-and-control mentality."

Asked to expand on that, Antonovich says Lents was the architect of the "use-a-barbecue, go-to-jail" program of several years ago and thus deserves his fate.

Nevermind that the barbecue rule was trivial and that it actually led manufacturers to reformulate starting fluid, giving us back our barbecues and a good conscience all at once. Antonovich won't let Lents off the hook.

"He killed a lot of trees developing the rules [on barbecues]," says the supervisor.

OK, let's move on to the less dyspeptic Cody G. Cluff, the board representative appointed by Gov. Wilson.

Cluff says he voted to oust the executive director because he suffers from a lack of "leadership" at the agency.

But didn't big business ask the board to retain Lents precisely because they regard him as an outstanding leader?

Sure enough, says Cluff, except he chooses to disbelieve their statements.

"I think it's a questionable stance," he says. "History has shown that the regulated in the South Coast Air Quality Management District have been intimidated. There is a certain fear factor."

An interesting theory, this notion that Shell Oil, Southern California Edison, Texaco, Warner Bros. et al were so afraid of Jim Lents that they would not criticize him even when the board was ready to cut him off at the pockets.

So I call Bill Quinn, the lobbyist for some of the above as well as labor groups, and one of several who supported Lents at the hearing. He begins by ticking off the "market-based" programs enacted by the AQMD that are so favored by business. There's one called RECLAIM, another called Air Resource Credit, etc., etc.

"We see Jim Lents and his team as really getting behind these programs and being very supportive," says Quinn. "Right now our real problem is the EPA and their new rules, but Lents and his people are working with us."

Quinn fairly bubbles with praise for Lents. He does not sound intimidated. So I ask him, is he speaking out of fear of retribution?

There's a baffled pause.

"No. That's not why I stood up at the meeting," Quinn says carefully.

So it's back to the mystery. Henry Wedaa, a Republican and former board member himself, says he believes the real reason for Lents' firing has to do with politics in the deepest sense. The six members who voted against Lents simply have a different world view.

You mean, I say, the very fact that Lents wanted to make the agency a successful experiment in government meant he was doomed in the eyes of some board members?

"You got it," says Wedaa.

Maybe so. Southern California has always treated politics as religion rather than a mechanism for solving problems. You "believe" or you don't. You go to heaven or hell.

A pity, because right now the AQMD appears headed for the second. Pray for a miracle.

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