The 'Noes' Have It on Environmental Measures

Several weeks ago, the California League of Conservation Voters issued the results of a study--based on data from the state's largest environmental organizations--of the fate of environmentally oriented bills in Sacramento over the past 5 years.

Although our state senators (four Republicans and one Democrat) came out well (just below the full Senate average), Orange County's seven Assembly members (all Republicans) averaged 45% below the full Assembly support level of environmental bills.

Orange County had the further distinction of the state's two lowest-rated legislators on environmental issues: Dennis Brown of Los Alamitos and John R. Lewis of Orange. Each had a rating of 4% support of environmental bills as contrasted with the full Assembly average of 61%. Almost as low were four other Orange County Assembly members: Gil Ferguson of Newport Beach, Robert Frazee of Carlsbad, Nolan Frizelle of Huntington Beach and Ross Johnson of La Habra. The single exception--and the only Assembly member to bring the Orange County average up instead of dragging it down--was Doris Allen of Cypress, who recently introduced a bill to ban gill-netting of sea life.

The study was based on the fate of 20 environmental bills, eight of which Gov. George Deukmejian signed into law. Among them: overhaul of California's Clean Air Act, granting wider authority to local air pollution control districts, strengthening the motor vehicle inspection program, and identifying the causes and effects of acid rain.

I was curious about how Brown and Lewis felt about being identified as the legislators with the worst environmental records in the state, so I called them. Lewis didn't return my calls, but I reached Brown in his Sacramento office. He told me he wasn't in the least dismayed by his low environmental rating.

"Unfortunately," he said, "the majority of my colleagues don't look as clearly at these bills as I do. They worry about being judged anti-environmentalist. I look at the real issues."

When I asked him to identify the issues that caused him to vote against several specific environmental bills, he said: "We vote on thousands of measures up here every year, and I have no idea what my reasoning was on any particular one. I'd have to go back and look it up. But if I believe a bill involves a waste of tax dollars and isn't totally responsible, I vote against it." (Brown was the top "no" voter in the 1985-86 session, opposing 29% of all legislation offered.)

If Brown's constituents are displeased with his environmental voting record, they are apparently not letting him know about it. "I don't know if I represent the views of my constituents on environmental matters," he said. "All I know is that so far, there hasn't been any response from them on this issue or on the so-called rating I received."

I also talked with several leading Orange County environmentalists, none of whom was surprised at the ratings of the Orange County Assembly delegation.

Laguna Beach Mayor Robert F. Gentry, a Democrat, said: "I'm probably the most vocal elected official in Orange County opposing offshore oil--and I've never been contacted by any of our Orange County Assembly members for help or information. It's a real challenge trying to work with them because they could be very helpful to us. But we have very vocal members of Congress from this area who want to see the oil industry expand, and I feel our local state legislators follow their lead totally. So we don't even try anymore. There are a number of state Assembly members outside of Orange County who are environmentally concerned--people like Mike Roos and Sam Farr--and they are the legislators we work with."

The Sierra Club's head honcho in Orange County, Dan Hayes, is both frustrated and confused by this situation. Frustrated because he feels that "Orange County Assembly members are not in step with their constituents. Most of their money comes from developers, and as soon as they are approached on an environmental bill, they're turned off. We've tried repeatedly to work with these folks and have got nowhere."

Hayes, a lifelong Republican who recently became a Democrat, added: "About 65 of our members in Orange County are Republicans, which makes it especially frustrating. It seems like we only back Democrats locally, but that's because our incumbent Republicans are so bad on environmental issues. The Sierra Club endorsement is highly prized in other parts of the state, but not in Orange County.

"I suppose a lot of the fault is ours by not making the public more aware of how bad the environmental records of our Orange County Assembly members are, but these people appear to be politically entrenched. Even so, it's confusing to me that Orange County voters who are so sports-conscious and spend so much of their time outdoors aren't up in arms about this situation."

Judy Rosener--a Democrat, former member of the Coastal Commission and an active Orange County environmentalist--answers that question this way: "Environmental matters are not the single most important issue to most voters, so even though these Assembly members are out of step with their constituents on protecting the environment, that is seldom the primary motivation of voters--unless they happen to be living next to a dump site.

"But these are important enough matters that we have always tried to develop a strategy for dealing with each legislator on specific issues. Even those we know we can't convince, we try to keep informed--and look for other ways to put pressure on them, sometimes by recasting the problem in the interests of the developers."

On one point, the environmentalists agreed emphatically: It would help a lot if the constituents of these Assembly members made their displeasure known.

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