Official Rebuked for Letter Admonishing AQMD Hearing Board

Times Staff Writer

The senior member of the South Coast Air Quality Management District's governing body has rebuked the district's top executive for going public with complaints about the AQMD hearing board.

In a harshly worded letter, Thomas F. Heinsheimer accused Executive Officer James M. Lents of acting "in an extremely improper manner" for releasing to the press a letter written by Lents to the hearing board. In his letter, Lents criticized the board for attending a private luncheon provided by the Port of Los Angeles at which slides dealing with a pending case were shown.

The AQMD governing board is a state-mandated body that sets policy for the district, selects its executive officer and appoints the five-member hearing board. The hearing board settles disputes over the AQMD staff's enforcement of air-quality regulations.

"Your letter has tarnished the image of the district, cast serious doubt about the good judgment of its executive officer and called into public question the district's ability to properly manage its affairs," Heinsheimer wrote in the letter to Lents.

In response, Lents said in an interview that he acted properly.

Heinsheimer, the governing body's former president who now acts as liaison to the hearing board, called that board's decision to attend the June 8 luncheon "a judgment call" that "caused no irreversible harm." He said Lents should have brought any complaints about the meeting to the governing body--not the press.

"If a mistake, it was correctable by a number of administrative and procedural remedies, which were and are under consideration. They deserve better of us and of you than to be held up to public vilification."

In an interview, Heinsheimer said he learned about Lents' letter from a Times article published last Sunday. He said he released a copy of his letter to The Times only because Lents had already made the luncheon "a major public issue" and because a Times reporter asked for it.

Heinsheimer said Lents "generated a document and he gave it to the press before he even gave it to the hearing board, which seemed like a grandstanding play to me." He added that he released his letter to the press only "after everyone had a chance to digest it and think about it."

Lents defended his letter and denied that he released it to the press before distributing it to the hearing board. He described Heinsheimer's letter as "a difference of opinion--no more than that."

Lents, who has headed the agency for six months, said he went public with his criticism of the board because the AQMD is a public agency.

"Sometimes you wish when you are in government that you could do things privately, but we are a public agency, and as such we deal with open records, and we work in that kind of arena," he said. "We have a responsibility, and in fact it is mandated by law, that the work we do be made available to the public."

Heinsheimer, who also is a Rolling Hills City Councilman, said the hearing board may not be able to be objective on matters brought before it by the AQMD staff because of Lents' "personal attack."

Lents said he did not think the controversy surrounding the luncheon or its aftermath will hurt relations between the staff and the board.

"I think we are all professionals," he said. "I know of many cases where deputy district attorneys say they think a judge made an error in a certain case. And they go back before that judge."

Shortly after Lents released his letter June 18, the hearing board announced that it would hold a special meeting July 7 to determine whether it should be disqualified from deciding the case because of Lents' concerns about impropriety.

The case involves Kaiser International, which pays $2 million a year to the Port of Los Angeles for leased facilities. The AQMD staff wants to shut down the operation because of complaints that it is a public nuisance.

The port, which opposes the shutdown, treated the board to the luncheon and a tour of the Kaiser International facility nine days before the panel was to consider the case. The case has since been postponed to July 15.

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