Sabrina Schiller--Her Crusade for Clean Air Creates a Whirlwind

Times Staff Writer

No one has ever doubted Sabrina Schiller's commitment to clean air.

Several months ago, for example, Schiller appeared before the Fontana City Council to lobby for a proposed ride-sharing proposal being considered by the South Coast Air Quality Management District board.

As a member of the AQMD board, Schiller was taking her case directly to the constituents of other AQMD members who opposed the plan and found herself in a confrontation with Councilman Donald F. Day.

Opponents say the exchange that followed is an example of why they want her removed from the AQMD board.

Day: "We have our representatives on the board in (Ontario Mayor) Faye Dastrup and Fazle Quadri. . . . She's telling us they don't know their jobs and she wants to argue with them."

Schiller: "I'm sorry, Mr. Day. That's not correct. If you look at the letters you will see that they are saying they're not taking any position. They're not opposing this regulation."

Day: "I've talked to Mr. Quadri and he said he would not vote for it . . . and Faye Dastrup said she wouldn't. And it's not as if they haven't taken a position."

Schiller: "Well, I'm sorry to hear that that position is out before a public hearing has been held on the issue. I think it's important to listen to all sides."

Day: "Wait a minute. . . . How come we're getting involved in it?"

Schiller: "Because I think it's important that this issue be brought to the constituency."

Both Quadri and Dastrup voted against the ride-sharing plan, which was ultimately defeated.

Since 1972 the actress-turned-activist has railed against polluters, nudged and cajoled air pollution control officials to do more, and grilled industry lobbyists.

Schiller is a leader of the Coalition for Clean Air, a private Santa Monica-based environmental organization, and a state Senate appointee to the AQMD governing board, which is responsible for enacting and enforcing air quality laws in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

Until now, her dual roles as citizen advocate and government enforcer have afforded her a degree of public visibility and policy-making influence enjoyed by few environmentalists.

But Sen. Ruben S. Ayala (D-Chino), an influential member of the upper house, wants her removed from the AQMD because of episodes like the appearance before the Fontana City Council.

Fundamental Issue

As one Senate source observed: "It comes down to a Senate Rules Committee appointee going into a Senate member's district and creating problems."

Additionally, some environmentalists are concerned that Schiller's confrontational tactics sometimes hinder the cause of clean air. The five-member Rules Committee, chaired by Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti (D-Los Angeles), is expected to consider the matter before the Legislature adjourns at the end of August.

Schiller, 42, the mother of two, gave up an acting career in 1972 that included playing opposite William Shatner in television episodes of "Star Trek." She wanted to devote full time to fight for a cause closer to home.

Schiller lives in Pacific Palisades with her husband, television comedy writer Robert Schiller.

She said a smog siege in 1972 shortly after their daughter, Abbie, was born eventually led to a decision to campaign virtually full time for clean air.

"One day I was at home with my baby and I was sitting outside with her, rocking her in a basket chair, and all of a sudden I just became overwhelmed by air pollution. It never happens in the Palisades and I was amazed it could happen.

Concern for Child

"I literally couldn't breathe and I thought, here was this baby in my arms . . . how could she breathe."

She was a member of the now defunct "Stamp Out Smog" and organized its successor group, Project Air, in the mid-1970s. But, her overriding commitment since 1971 has been to the Coalition for Clean Air. In 1977 she became the group's unpaid project coordinator responsible for carrying out the policies of the board. She estimates she has spent between $30,000 and $50,000 in clean-air causes.

She ran for the state Senate in 1976, narrowly losing to a longtime incumbent by 700 votes. Had she won, Schiller would then have been the first woman ever elected to the upper house. She then lost an Assembly race in a special election several months later.

While some legislators have advised her to lie low, Schiller continues to speak out.

Last week, her allies held a press conference urging Roberti not to fire her. Schiller said she was not aware of the press conference until it was too late to stop it. But several days later, the Coalition for Clean Air sent a letter to 1,000 of its members urging them to write the Los Angeles Times and the Rules Committee protesting Ayala's "unwarranted attack on one of our most valuable smog-fighters." Schiller said she knew about the letter, which angered some senators, before it was mailed.

She is unrepentant about putting the spotlight on the voting records of colleagues.

Sees No Harm

"If they're voting their constituency, then they have a perfectly defensible position. What harm can there be to make that a public record? I'd be hard-pressed to tell you where Sen. Ayala's district began and where it ended. . . . I don't know where his district is. I don't care where it is. My only goal is to inform the people."

And she makes no apologies to those who suggest that she has not worked with colleagues.

"I look back on a couple of issues (and) giving them a vote wasn't worth it because they never were given back. I have tried everything to bring those people on board. I have wined and dined with them and talked with them, explained to them--everything you could possibly imagine. This is my third year. I have had it. I don't see any of it coming back in the form of good votes. They get their special interests and they give nothing in return and I'm not going to play that game."

She is impatient with colleagues who don't study the issues as carefully as she says she does.

"I think it is true that there are some members of the board who will probably vote against a position that I feel strongly about. I don't know if it's for spite so much as they figure if I'm supporting it they've got to oppose it--because they would philosophically oppose it if they understood it," she said in a recent interview.

Calls Board a Failure

The issue, she said, is not Sabrina Schiller, but the failure of the 14-member AQMD board--which is composed of appointees from city and county governments as well as the Speaker of the state Assembly and governor--to enact tougher air pollution regulations. Indeed, she said she will ask the Senate to hold an oversight hearing to determine if the AQMD is failing to enforce clean-air laws as they were intended.

Despite her immersion in politics for more than 15 years, her critics, and even some supporters, say Schiller has not mastered the art of compromise.

Recently, for example, she reportedly rejected a suggestion that the Coalition for Clean Air's report card on AQMD board members be published by someone else so that her effectiveness on the board would not be further eroded. The report concluded, "Overall, the board appears to have a dismal voting record."

"It's just a question of style as to whether you think a person with her kind of personality is more effective on the inside or the outside," said Mary Nichols, former chairman of the state Air Resources Board in the Administration of former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. and, until recently, manager of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's gubernatorial campaign.

"I think Sabrina on the barricades probably gets more done than Sabrina as a member sitting on that large and basically very conservative board that the South Coast district is."

But Schiller "came to my rescue" when the Legislature balked at ARB programs and budgets, Nichols said. "She did an absolutely magnificent job with both the technical and legal aspects."

An environmentalist, who often shares Schiller's views, nonetheless said he believes Schiller should step down.

"It would be a good time for her to leave," he said, asking that his name not be used. "And it's very frustrating because she's bright on a lot of issues in terms of technology. But I really feel she's alienated so many . . . colleagues, including all of them one time or another. You can't work in a legislative body that way."

But other environmentalists think that Schiller's effectiveness is more often felt behind the scenes. Mark Abramowitz of Citizens for a Better Environment said she had repeatedly stood up to what he called unreasonable requests from industry for waivers of air pollution rules. And he said there was no member of the AQMD board with a better grasp of air quality issues, laws and air chemistry.

Board Seen as Ineffective

"I've practically given up on that board as a total waste of time," Abramowitz said. "That board does not want to clean the air up. But, I've seen her in action and . . . she's effective."

Whatever the case, Schiller said she has no plans of walking away from the clean-air cause if she is not reappointed.

"I told Senate Rules that I would agree to whatever David Roberti wanted because I feel that I would not stand in the middle of a Senate fight. I believe he's very effective and very important to Senate rules and if Ayala's support for David Roberti as Senate president pro tempore depended on this, I'm stepping aside."

But she said she also told a committee aide: "The fact is, given my druthers, I want you to know what's at stake. I want you to know what I'm involved with . . . and why it's so important that I stay where I am."

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