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Carl Olson

A Crusader With a Legislative Agenda Sets His Sights on the Auto Club Board

February 18, 2001|BOB RECTOR | Bob Rector is an opinion page editor of The Times' San Fernando Valley and Ventura County editions

An unusually lively campaign for four seats on the board of directors marks an attempt to steer the Automobile Club of Southern California onto a more aggressively political route.

Four members with conservative ties--Carl Olson of Woodland Hills, Robin Westmiller of Thousand Oaks, Mark Seidenberg of Laguna Hills and Peter Ford of Beverly Hills--want to use the venerable club's influential position in Sacramento to lobby for a series of auto-releated tax cuts.

Specifically, they want to abolish California's vehicle licensing fee, eliminate what they call the double taxation of gasoline and investigate the high price of fuel.

According to the group, a car buyer pays sales tax when the vehicle is purchased, then has to pay more tax every year for the use of it. The double taxation on gasoline and diesel fuel results from sales tax being imposed on top of state and federal excise taxes. And, they say, the recent surge in fuel prices deserves closer investigation.

"These proposals could result in a yearly savings of between $200 and $2,000 per year, depending on a member's number of vehicles and annual mileage," according to the group.

They point to the state surplus to make up for the shortfall that would result from the loss of tax revenues.

Olson said the group is protesting "the current board's unwillingness to honor the club's own articles of incorporation to promote the interests of motorists through legislation."

But the auto club fears that if the slate wins, the new board members will use the club's clout in a way that would tarnish the organization's nonpartisan history. The four have a "very narrow, slanted political point of view," according to Thomas McKernan, the club's chief executive.

"The four opposition candidates, in concert with a specific political faction, will steer the club into partisan public affairs activities that have no place in our organization, which exists to serve all our members regardless of political affiliation," McKernan said in a letter to club employees.

In fact, the cuts proposed by Olson and his colleagues closely mirror the legislative agenda of state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), a tax-bashing conservative who has already succeeded in reducing the vehicle licensing fee.

Both McClintock and Olson acknowledge knowing each other but deny any involvement with each other's efforts. However, McClintock is honorary advisor to the California Republican Liberty Caucus, a group that helped collect signatures for the slate. And Westmiller's husband, William, is immediate past chairman of the caucus.

The Times recently talked with Olson, an accountant and accounting instructor, about his efforts to win election to the Auto Club board.

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Question: Why is your group trying to win seats on the Auto Club board?

Answer: The main reason is to make the Auto Club represent the pro-motorist point of view in public policy.

Q: They don't do that now?

A: The three big issues that we have picked, which seem to be no-brainers, are the car tax, the double taxation on gasoline and a for-real investigation on the incredibly high price of gasoline these days. The current board has not done anything, legislatively, to cut the car tax or abolish it, to get rid of the double taxation on gasoline or to conduct any kind of an investigation of the high price of fuel. And so we want to do that.

Q: Have you presented these issues to the Auto Club board? Have board members ever debated or taken a position on them or have they just ignored you?

A: They have ignored it. Last year, we presented, as individual members, proposed resolutions for the annual meeting on these three subjects. The board chairman refused to put them on the agenda.

Q: Did he say why?

A: No.

Q: You claim the current 12 board members have never been elected by the club membership. How does that work?

A: The current bylaws allow the board to nominate anybody they want, four persons every year, and if nobody else qualifies by petition, there's never an election. They're just declared to be in office.

Q: So you solicited signatures to qualify for nomination?

A: They required approximately 1,600 member signatures, which, for four of us, amounted to 400 each. And we did it.

Q: Your agenda closely reflects that of state Sen. Tom McClintock. Do you have any connection to him?

A: I've known Sen. McClintock for maybe 20 years. I've donated small amounts to his campaigns. I believe that he's one of the few people who actually reads budgets and tax bills. Also, he's a winner. He keeps winning all his elections very handily. And on these particular issues, it's been something of an inspiration to be able to say, "Hey, you know, there's someone there that's thinking the right way." We do have a little bit of feedback from him.

Q: But there's a chicken and egg question here. Have you and your fellow board candidates adopted McClintock's positions, or did you come to this philosophy independently?

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