To his critics in private industry, Henry W. Wedaa is a villain of the skies, a regulatory Red Baron whose ammunition isn’t bullets, but bureaucracy.
Boosters, however, praise his willingness to take on balky businesses on behalf of Southern California’s air.
Love him or hate him, Wedaa has been a target for controversy as board chairman of the powerful South Coast Air Quality Management District. Now the Yorba Linda councilman is under fire again.
State Sen. John R. Lewis (R-Orange) has introduced legislation in Sacramento that would strip the 68-year-old air-quality chieftain of the protection that has kept his enemies at bay. Lewis’ bill, which has already cleared a key committee and goes before the full Senate this week, would eliminate the requirement for a two-thirds vote by Orange County cities to replace their representative on the AQMD, instead requiring a simple majority vote.
It was that two-thirds threshold that kept Wedaa in power last year during an unsuccessful attempt to unseat him and appoint Costa Mesa Councilman Peter F. Buffa, a conservative considered more sympathetic toward the business community. Buffa was backed by a majority of the cities, but failed to get two-thirds of the votes.
“Hank has engendered a lot of bitterness,” Lewis said. “He’s a rubber stamp for a vast majority of (AQMD) staff recommendations that have done a lot of damage to the business sector and the economy in Southern California.”
As with earlier coup attempts, Wedaa predicts he will prevail. The bill is similar, Wedaa noted, to one sponsored by Lewis last year that passed the Senate but died in the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, a frequent graveyard for anti-AQMD efforts.
Wedaa says the effort “is sheer stupidity” and described Lewis and his colleagues in the Orange County delegation as “a bunch of right-wing ideologues who would just as soon government would go away.”
Such talk is hardly out of character. A former B-24 bombardier who flew 30 missions during World War II, Wedaa (pronounced WE-duh) does not hold back the rhetorical explosives when defending his role as AQMD chairman or the agency’s efforts to fight smog.
“I’m very impressed with businesses who are cleaning up, but there are some--and they are the vocal ones--who don’t want to do anything,” said Wedaa, a barrel-chested Republican who has represented Orange County since 1987. “It’s like criminals in my view. . . . It’s the 5% of the companies who are saying, ‘Let them breathe toxins, let them breathe carcinogens.’ ”
Despite such blunt sentiments, Wedaa said he never was much of a clean-air junkie. A New Jersey native, he did not worry about the murky Southern California skies that greeted him when he moved west in the late ‘50s.
Today, he says his role on the AQMD is simply to carry out actions ordered by the federal and state governments to improve air quality in Southern California, the smoggiest region in the nation. A self-described “Pete Wilson Republican” and inveterate fan of Richard Nixon, Wedaa sees it all more as an exercise in civic responsibility than environmental zeal.
Armed with an undergraduate degree in physics (he worked in the aerospace industry and later owned a firm that ran school book fairs), Wedaa spends each and every workday at his AQMD office.
“I treat it as a full-time job,” said Wedaa, who is paid $12,000 a year for his board duties. “I work hard because the issues are worth it. But I’m not a fresh-air fanatic. I like to breathe fresh air, but I don’t worry about it like a lot of people.”
Many captains of commerce are not buying it. They see Wedaa as an air-quality zealot helping lead an agency that would drive industry from the region. The complaints have grown particularly strident as the state’s economy has worsened.
They charge that Wedaa has “gone native,” becoming so indoctrinated in the tribelike bureaucracy of the giant air-quality agency that he blindly follows the advice of an AQMD staff he has grown to know and love.
Jim Morrissey, owner of an Anaheim tool and die shop and leader of the Republican Small Business Assn., contends that Wedaa and the board he chairs are “out of touch” with the problems of hundreds of tiny enterprises that dot the Southland and struggle to meet AQMD regulations.
“He truly doesn’t understand what the AQMD is doing,” said Morrissey, whose group represents 76 small businesses. “Here in the basin, 65% of the pollution is from automobiles. Small businesses are producing an extremely small percentage of the pollution, but they’re paying a hell of a price. Many in our group think the AQMD is even worse than the Russian KGB.”
Others seem equally bothered by Wedaa’s style. The air board chairman has instituted weekly office hours as well as a monthly lunch with businesses and says he welcomes an audience with anyone packing a gripe. But several business owners said such gestures are a mirage.
Keith Holt, plant engineer for a Garden Grove manufacturing firm, said it took him three weeks to get a meeting with Wedaa in February. When the big day arrived, he said, Wedaa began the session by announcing: “Keith, I’m going to tell you what I tell everyone. It may be in a minute, it may be in 10 minutes, but I’ll tell you: ‘That’s enough. The meeting is over. Just put it in a letter.’ ”
In the end, Wedaa gave Holt nearly an hour to make his case, but the plant manager said his words fell on deaf ears.
“I feel like I wasted an hour of my time,” he said.
Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), who has joined Lewis to sponsor numerous bills attacking the AQMD, said he has heard similar complaints.
“Hank Wedaa has to have an open mind, not just an open door, when dealing with the concerns of” business owners, he said.
Wedaa does have his supporters, even among the business community. Many of the big smokestack industries and aerospace firms consider him a predictable and palatable presence. Owners of some smaller firms say he is a moderate and a ready bellwether of the direction the agency is headed.
“Before Hank became chairman, it was like going to see ‘The Wizard of Oz’ to appear before the governing board,” said Ed Laird of the Southern California Small Business Coalition, a group of 1,000 firms scattered throughout the Southland. “He’s changed that a lot. He’s blunt, he doesn’t mince words, but the more you know him, the more credibility he has.”
Some environmentalists also give Wedaa high marks.
“I think he is trying to walk a very fine line,” said Jim Jenal of Citizens for a Better Environment, a statewide advocacy group. “People who oppose him don’t want middle of the road, they don’t want an open mind, they want an ideologue, someone who will advance their agenda and nothing else.”
Jenal noted that he, too, got gruff treatment when he first had a private meeting with Wedaa, but drew a different conclusion.
“Hank wants to be seen as having an open door, but doesn’t want to be seen as being in anyone’s pocket,” Jenal said.
For his part, Wedaa said he has helped prod the AQMD to be more responsive to the complaints of business. He said the AQMD has launched efforts to simplify the permit process, ease the regulatory logjam and infuse agency staff with an attitude more hospitable to business. Wedaa said he has also pushed the board to visit the factories and businesses affected by its regulations.
As for the Lewis legislation, Wedaa maintains it would lead to an incessant turnover of Orange County representatives on the AQMD governing board. That sort of revolving-door representation, he said, would prove a disaster. The agency handles such complex issues laden with scientific and sociological implications that “it takes a couple years to get up to speed,” Wedaa said.
Lewis rejects such arguments, saying the two-thirds requirement is “an onerous threshold,” making it nearly impossible to promote a healthy turnover on the board.
He figures the bill has a good shot this year and is trying raise support from Orange County cities. So far, the county division of the League of California Cities and eight municipalities--including Anaheim, Fullerton, Huntington Beach and Santa Ana--have endorsed the bill, he said.
Lewis also stressed that he is not pushing the issue simply to oust Wedaa. Even if Wedaa retired tomorrow, Lewis promised that he would continue to pursue repeal of the two-thirds vote.
“All it takes is the backing of a small number of cities to keep from being thrown out,” Lewis noted. “It’s absurd. I don’t think anyone intended this position to be an appointment for life.”