Medfly Thrusts Ag Chief Into the Spotlight : Government: Orange County Agriculture Commissioner Jim Harnett once enjoyed a low profile. But his new job of explaining the state's pesticide plan has changed all that.


Until a few months ago, Jim Harnett jokes, the most visible part of his dual position as Orange County's agriculture commissioner and sealer of weights and measures entailed "making sure the strawberries were sweet and the scales in the groceries were right."

Then the Medfly hit Orange County.

Now, the career bureaucrat with a low profile finds himself thrust into the sometimes-unnerving role of local point man for the state's expanding aerial campaign against the Mediterranean fruit fly.

At press conferences, combative city council hearings and meetings with worried agriculture lobbyists, the job of explaining and defending the state's pesticide plan--and trying to assuage public fears over it--has often fallen to Harnett and his troops.

Harnett, 57 and a longtime Orange resident, asserts that his new role in the public spotlight has been a challenging and exciting one. But already, critics of the malathion effort charge that his office has offered a one-sided justification for a policy that they say may expose hundreds of thousands of Orange County residents to a potentially dangerous chemical.

The spotlight seems certain to intensify in coming weeks as agriculture officials plan to continue spraying malathion up to a dozen times in all over about 44 square miles of Orange County.

On Tuesday, Harnett will face what could be one of his toughest forums to date when he appears before the County Board of Supervisors as it considers extending its vote of confidence for the Medfly policy. Protesters promise to turn out en masse for the meeting, and at least two of the five supervisors say they will vote against the spraying--even though state officials, also expected to be at the meeting, insist the county is powerless to stop it.

Harnett gets high marks from malathion proponents and critics alike, both locally and in Sacramento, for his professionalism, enthusiasm, and a friendly and calm demeanor at the helm of the agriculture office, a $63,000-a-year post he has held for nearly three years by appointment of the County Board of Supervisors.

"He's one of the best commissioners we have," said Joe Bandy, regional coordinator for the state Department of Food and Agriculture, which licenses local agriculture commissioners.

Still, it is Harnett's normally quiet, 56-employee office near Disneyland that has had to bear the brunt of the recent public frustration and skepticism over the Medfly campaign.

Operators manning the office's swamped Medfly hot line are sometimes besieged by angry, swearing callers.

Local agriculture officials making appearances at packed city meetings in recent weeks have been met with caustic questioning, mixed with occasional hisses and boos from the crowds.

And some critics say they simply are not satisfied with the assurances they've been offered about the safety of the malathion-bait spray mixture, a mistrust that has led to protests and an ongoing legal challenge by the cities of Huntington Beach, Garden Grove and Westminster to try and halt the spraying.

"The information we've been getting from that office really hasn't been much help. It's all 'Trust us, we know what we're doing,' " complained Garden Grove Councilman Raymond T. Littrell, a malathion critic. "They just feed us the state line and say to hell with any new information that's come along."

Added County Supervisor Roger R. Stanton, an early opponent of the Medfly spraying: "I think Jim's an outstanding individual and a professional, and I respect him. . . . But I'm deeply concerned that they're not giving us the whole picture."

"On an issue like (the Medfly), the public has to have arguments pro and con, but we're getting from Jim's office none of the negative information about malathion that we're finding in other places," Stanton said, pointing to reports that claim malathion may cause cancer, birth defects and other maladies.

After more than three decades in the agriculture office, as agriculture commissioner Harnett is in the relatively unusual position of answering to both the county and the state. But the state picks up part of his salary and licenses all local agriculture commissioners--and has the power to decertify them as well.

Because of that precarious balance, Stanton asserts, "I think he's facing an inevitable conflict; his hands are tied."

Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder, who also has voiced concerns about the spraying, agreed, saying: "He's in an impossible situation. He's just a foot soldier taking directions from the state; the real problem and the reason for all the frenzy and panic over this (malathion) is at the top."

While voicing opposition to the sprayings has proven good political fodder for some Orange County elected leaders, Harnett says he is adamant about staying out of politics.

"I'm not a politician," Harnett said in an interview. "I'm not making judgments--we're just trying to get information to the public without massaging it. That's my job."

On the one hand, Harnett said he is bound as commissioner to help carry out state scientific protocol for responding to Medfly discoveries such as those since November in Brea, Garden Grove and Westminster. "The state is the locomotion behind this," he said.

On the other hand, Harnett said he fully supports the policy, seeing it as a necessary response to the Medfly infestation in the absence of other options.

"The most frustrating part is to see that some people just don't want a discussion--a lot of these people don't want to hear the facts," Harnett said. "I have to rotate the people on our (Medfly hot line) because they get tired of people telling them how rotten they are, asking, 'What are you doing to my kids?' "

On the question of malathion's safety, he said: "There aren't two sides. . . . There is no concrete evidence to say that malathion used in these dosages has any unreasonable health effect. I don't even think malathion is really the issue--the issue is that people just don't want the helicopters and the disruption done to them."

And so, unless and until someone tells him differently, Harnett says he will continue dealing with the Medfly issue just as he has been.

He'll continue to have his staff look for fruit quarantine violators and check thousands of Medfly traps around the county, sending any possible fertile specimens to project headquarters in Los Angeles for dissection.

He'll continue to wait at El Monte Airport as Bell 204 helicopters make their rounds over Orange County, taking calls on his car phone from the Medfly hot line and monitoring reports from personnel on the ground in the spray area.

And he and his deputies will continue to turn out at public meetings to try and answer questions and persuade residents and politicians that the malathion spraying is "the only way to go."

And when all the tumult has died down, Harnett said, he'll look forward to getting back to the work at hand--checking strawberries and grocery scales.

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