Air board chairman's confrontation with protester is left out of official video

Southern California’s air quality board took the unusual step this month of editing footage from an official webcast that showed its chairman confronting a protester who had interrupted a public meeting.

The incident took place about 30 minutes into the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s June 2 board meeting, after dozens of activists opposed to a planned expansion of oil company Tesoro’s refinery began chanting at agency officials from the auditorium in Diamond Bar.

An audience member live-streamed the fracas, a video of which remains posted on Facebook.

The district’s video doesn’t include an obscenity-laced exchange in which board Chairman William A. Burke, who is African American, approached and confronted a man in the audience who he believed had threatened and cursed at him using racially derogatory language.

After the disturbance, members of the 13-member panel retreated to a private conference room to conduct the rest of the business on the agenda, with no members of the public allowed inside.

AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood said state law permits officials to exclude members of the public from meetings “any time there is a threat to security and safety” so long as journalists are allowed to attend. No reporters were present that day, he said.

Environmentalists staged the protest in reaction to AQMD Executive Officer Wayne Nastri’s May 12 decision to sign off on an environmental review of Texas-based Tesoro’s plans to merge its Carson and Wilmington facilities into the West Coast’s largest refinery.

Environmental groups say the project would pose health and safety risks to people in Wilmington, Carson and western Long Beach.

During public testimony on an unrelated item, Alicia Rivera, Wilmington organizer for Communities for a Better Environment, criticized air quality officials for the decision as a group of other activists joined her in chanting: “You wash your hands, you put all the power in one person’s hands” — referring to Nastri.

That’s when the video posted online by the air district cuts out abruptly.

The official video picks up after the board reconvened in a private room. The agency typically streams and posts video of all of its governing board meetings.

Atwood said that “the footage that was not included was not part of the meeting, it was protestors protesting. The meeting at that point had been suspended.”

The unofficial video shows that the protest continued for several minutes with some board members remaining at their seats as demonstrators yelled “shame on you,” “Burke for prison,” “you are killing children” and other chants.

Burke rose to his feet to argue with one of the demonstrators and later approached the audience, pointing his finger at a man, the video shows.

Alicia Rivera, who organized the protest, said she grew concerned and tried to stop the unidentified man, who she said was shouting louder than anyone in the auditorium and is not affiliated with her group.

People present said they heard the man use a derogatory term for African Americans and that Burke responded with an obscenity.

Burke denied using an obscenity.

“I thought I heard a racial slur from one individual and went down to ask the fellow about it,” Burke wrote in an email to the Times. “He ran back yelling obscenities at me so I was never able to speak to him.”

Burke said in a subsequent phone interview that the man ranted “about doing something abusive to me” — and though it was hard to make out — referred to him as “boy” and may have used other derogatory terms. “If he would have done something abusive to me I would have defended myself, that’s for sure.”

“No one calls me boy,” Burke said in the interview.

It’s not unusual for Burke, the longtime chairman of the air board, to engage in prolonged discussions with environmentalists and other agency critics from the dais during public hearings. He has served for over two decades on the panel, which is responsible for cleaning the air and protecting public health across a four-county basin of 17 million people.

Burke said he would look into why video of the incident was not posted, “but I’m sure what they’re going to tell me is that it wasn’t part of the public proceeding.”

After the confrontation, the board went into closed session and the auditorium emptied, Atwood said.

Later, when the board reconvened its public agenda in a conference room, Rivera said she and others tried to attend but were barred entry by security guards.

“I thought it was really outrageous,” Rivera said.

California law allows bodies like the air board to adjourn to a private location when there are people disrupting the meeting that cannot be removed, said Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, nonprofit that advocates for open government.

But the lack of video prevents the public from knowing "exactly what sort of activity the board used to adjourn the regular meeting. It's possible that they didn’t do it right or that they never announced the adjournment.”

"The Brown Act does not authorize a closed session to deal with disruptive conduct,” only to discuss pending litigation, Francke added. Without video, “the record simply isn’t there to figure that out.”

While behind closed doors, the air quality board voted to award millions in contracts to fund electric school buses and approved a $150 million annual budget.

tony.barboza@latimes.com

@tonybarboza

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