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Air District Must Retain Focus

The mission's the thing, not infighting about who holds the jobs

May 28, 1997

After 10 years, James Lents may have worked himself out of a job. The executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District has not eliminated the basin's noxious smog, although air quality has improved significantly because of his determined efforts. But many powerful folks--a handful of whom sit on the agency's board--appear to have had enough of earnest efforts to eliminate the eye-stinging haze that sometimes hovers over this region.

Earlier this month, half of the AQMD's board voted not to renew the contracts of Lents and his two top deputies, which expire July 31. Unless one member on the 12-seat panel changes his or her mind when the body meets again next month, these top staffers will be out.

The push to sack Lents springs from no single source. Despite what many consider a softening of regulation lately in some areas and inactivity in others, board members like Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich insist that Lents is still hostile to business. This despite the fact that many local business leaders support Lents and praise his efforts.

Others, including Cody Cluff, Gov. Pete Wilson's appointee to the AQMD board, say they want a stronger leader who is more energetic and enthusiastic, though they are short on specifics about what they're looking for.

Governing boards have every right to appoint new executives, and often this sort of change energizes an agency. James Lents is not the only person capable of leading the air district. But he has been a strong leader of an agency with a herculean mission. Without Lents, the AQMD could indeed become even friendlier to business and more flexible, as some behind this effort clearly expect. However, tough federal and state laws still require this region to make major--and measurable--improvements in air quality by 2010.

Many days the air we breathe is unhealthy. And for those with chronic asthma or other respiratory problems, our air quality can be downright dangerous. The most farsighted businesses know that and know also that cleaner air is in this region's long-term economic interest.

Keeping Lents on board won't ensure that the basin reaches important targets. But replacing him won't necessarily ease the difficulty or cost of the cleanup, either. In any event, the AQMD board needs to go beyond internal politics and focus on its mandate to improve air quality. The board, not the executive director, is primarily responsible for making that haze on the horizon disappear.

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