Tensions Between Wilson and Quake Panel Intensify
The independent commission that recommends earthquake safety standards for California and conducts broad reviews of the state’s largest quakes is battling with the Wilson administration.
In its latest rebuff to the governor’s office, the 17-member Seismic Safety Commission last month rejected both of the administration’s recommendations for executive director and instead picked a staff member unpopular with Wilson aides.
The near-unanimous decision reflects an ongoing bad relationship that has frustrated commissioners who feel that their advice is being ignored and has led some administration officials to call for the commission to be folded into another state agency.
The commission, formed 20 years ago, appears to be flirting with its future, because its budget is already small, its staff fewer than 10, and it is reliant on gubernatorial and legislative budget writers for its continued operations.
Chairman Lloyd Cluff, a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. official, confirmed that in a closed meeting July 25, only one vote was cast against the selection of Richard McCarthy, 47, a commission staff member since 1990, for executive director.
Cluff said that before the meeting, the deputy Wilson Cabinet secretary who is the administration’s point man for seismic safety, Camden McEfee, called him to say the governor’s office did not support McCarthy.
Cluff said McEfee told him, and Cluff later informed other commission members, that the governor supported either Bill Megidovich, head of the state Office of Emergency Services in the Deukmejian administration, or former State Architect Harry C. Hallenbeck.
However, neither man cleared a commission subcommittee that reviewed the 43 applicants for the executive directorship, and neither was voted on July 25, Cluff said.
When McCarthy was considered, Cluff said, the only vote cast against him was that of Commissioner Keith Wheeler, a Red Cross representative whose daughter works in the governor’s office.
The chairman acknowledged that “there are places where there are differences” on policy between the administration and the commission, most of whose members have been appointed by the governor.
McEfee did not return calls for comment.
Sean Walsh, Wilson’s press secretary, confirmed that the administration had opposed McCarthy.
“It’s our view that we should have as many good candidates to select from our candidate pool as possible, and in this instance, the candidates pool was fairly narrow, and it was our hope to expand that pool,” Walsh said.
Two other Wilson administration officials, who declined to be identified, said the administration has long been dissatisfied with the commission in general and McCarthy in particular.
McCarthy has been serving as acting director of the commission staff since last year, when veteran director Tom Tobin resigned after the issuance of a lengthy report on the lessons of the Northridge earthquake.
The administration officials said the commission had been very slow in producing the report that Wilson asked for in 1994, missing a deadline by 10 months and engaging in frequently divisive deliberations.
Then, when McEfee and other Wilson aides asked which of the commission’s 168 recommendations were most important, neither McCarthy nor the commissioners could tell them, the officials said.
“In some cases, they seemed to back off some of the recommendations,” one of the officials said.
McCarthy responded last week that the commission is in the process of prioritizing its recommendations.
The report of July 11, 1995, blamed lax enforcement of codes for a significant portion of the $27 billion in damage in the Northridge quake and said California was slipping behind in meeting goals for mitigating future quake damage.
Since the report was issued, few of the commission’s recommendations have been implemented. One that got quite a bit of publicity called for a major “colloquium,” or meeting of experts, to determine new state standards for “acceptable risk” in a major earthquake. It has yet to be held.
The commission’s longest serving member, Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson, said last week that he has grown so frustrated that at the last commission meeting he offered to resign. The offer was not accepted by the rest of the commission.
“I have no beef with the governor,” Bernson said. “My beef is with the whole system. It’s not just the governor. It’s every governor and every Legislature.
“We work hard to improve the state’s seismic protections and it seems that no one is listening. We write reports and nothing ever seems to get done.”
Another commissioner, Pat Snyder, said in a separate interview: “We’ve never had in words just what we’re doing that the governor is unhappy about. Someone needs to tell us. I think there’s been a communications breakdown. . . .
“We go ahead and do our business as we think we should, and often we hear through the back door that the governor’s office is displeased.”
Commissioner Jim Slawson, who once held the post of state geologist, said that in a recent conversation McEfee told him that “we were drifting as commissioners from what the governor would like.”
When he tried, however, to get specifics, Slawson said, McEfee would not give any.
Commissioners say one issue on which they have been most frustrated has been their attempt to get seismically risky state office buildings in Los Angeles and San Francisco retrofitted on a higher priority than buildings in Sacramento, where there are far fewer earthquakes.
The commission convened a panel of experts that recommended doing the first work in the most risky urban areas, but a legislative committee responsible for appropriating the funds ignored the commission’s report.
Joanne Kozberg, secretary of state and consumer services for Wilson, said that on this issue at least, the administration agrees with the commission.
But Kozberg’s occasional call for folding the commission into her agency is one of the issues that has exacerbated ill feelings between the administration and some commissioners.
Cluff said he told the administration that it is important for the commission to maintain its independence so as not to be seen as becoming mixed up in politics, and that he now regards the Kozberg idea as “totally dead.”
But Kozberg said this might not be so, and she noted that in an early draft of the commission’s Northridge report, the commission suggested it.
“It was not in the final version of the report,” she said. “But this could be a way to build accountability. You would have, right within the administration, a sounding board and an advocate for seismic issues.”
With all the differences between the commission and the administration capped off now with the selection of an executive director against the administration’s wishes, some commissioners feel that the panel may suffer decreases in an already small budget.
The budget in this fiscal year is $649,000, plus $500,000 in bond revenues to hire consultants and do studies.
“We’re pretty bare bones now,” Snyder said.
“They needed someone like Megidovich as executive director,” observed one Wilson aide, “someone who was wise in the ways of Sacramento.”