COLUMN RIGHT / CODY C. CLUFF : Business and Environment Can Be Friends : An ombudsman would be direct link between the regulators and the regulated.

Cody G. Cluff served as a c ommissioner on the AQMD's Special Commission on Air Quality and the Economy as a representative of the Community Air Quality Task Force. He is the director of business retention at the Economic Development Corp . of Los Angeles County

This month, a blue-ribbon commission recommended that the Southern California Air Quality Management District (AQMD) adopt significant changes to more adequately reflect the region's economic needs.

No other story could be more welcome news to this state's citizens.

Despite the recommendations, leaders at the AQMD continue to approach air quality regulations with an "us vs. them" mentality that has divided the AQMD and the business community for a number of years. The AQMD has the unique opportunity to dramatically enhance its public perception and help the disastrous economic situation in California with a single stroke--namely, the creation of an ombudsman.

The ombudsman program, as recommended by the agency's own Special Commission on Air Quality and the Economy, would be a direct link from the factory floor to the governing board, bypassing the layers of bureaucracy that have tended to dilute input from the regulated community. We on the special commission believe that this high-profile, easily made improvement would be in the best interests of the AQMD and the Southern California economy.

However, it is clear from the AQMD's response thus far that it simply doesn't understand the reality of doing business in California, especially in these tough economic times. Rather than welcome the most laudable proposal--that of the ombudsman program--the AQMD staff has reacted with typical bureaucratic arrogance. They refuse to believe that the primary reason businesses continue to leave California for Nevada, Utah or Mexico is the over-regulation that places even the most environmentally conscious companies under crippling and costly restrictions.

Of course, the irony of the situation is that most people in Southern California support tough air-quality regulations only if they do not unreasonably hurt businesses, according to recent surveys. A small wonder, considering that the real economic impact is now measured in workers who are laid off by companies strapped for money to pay for pollution monitoring equipment or environmental consultants and legal fees.

Yet, after months of soul-searching, the special commission concluded that the business community is not necessarily the enemy. Assisting companies that are trying to comply with air-quality regulations is more effective, the commission concluded, than waiting to fine them when they do not. The report's proposed changes would result in more jobs and cleaner air, and who can argue with that?

Indeed, clean air and a healthy economy are nothing less than interdependent.

As small- and large-business managers know, air-quality regulations are complex, constantly evolving standards that take advantage of new technology and environmental theories. Even businesses with the best intentions have found it difficult to keep up with the regulations, a trend that has been made worse by the recession. Our organization has heard the same complaint again and again from companies taking their business out of California: There is too little interaction between the regulatory agencies and the business community. The AQMD commission's proposal for an ombudsman program is the chance to forge a new partnership between the air-quality district and the people it serves.

Governmental agencies from Washington to Diamond Bar have been taking some hard knocks lately. Public support of AQMD regulations--dictating how you drive to work to the way you have your hamburgers cooked--has been weak in recent years. The AQMD was largely perceived as an overbearing watchdog that was letting the California economy slide into oblivion.

But times have changed. The nation has come to realize the gravity of environmental concerns, an enlightenment for which California can take much credit. At the same time, the importance of retaining and creating jobs in the state has never been more important; the 440,000 unemployed workers in Los Angeles County already know this. Thus, it seems the moment is right to bolster consumer confidence in the AQMD, and nourish a "good-faith" relationship between the agency and business owners and workers.

Like a teacher who would rather help students pass their tests than to fail them, the AQMD now has the opportunity to lead by example rather than by threat.

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