Anti-Terror Agency Plan Still Unclear

Times Staff Writer

The new, permanent Office of Homeland Security that Gov. Gray Davis intends to create would amount to a bureaucratic melding of uncertain cost and authority, administration officials acknowledge, and is the sort of agency that state emergency officials have argued is not needed to keep California safe from terrorists.

George Vinson, the former FBI agent Davis named to head the new effort, described it as an umbrella agency that ideally would not require additional employees or dollars.

"What we're trying to do is get some efficiencies going here," Vinson said. "The bottom-line goal is: Anything that has to do with homeland security that comes through the state will come through this office."

Davis apparently envisions a dual role for the new agency as both coordinator and booster. In his State of the State speech last week, the governor said that, besides guiding the state's anti-terrorism efforts, the office would "highlight the extraordinary technological capabilities of California's private industry to help protect all Americans."

Exactly how that would happen is not clear. The governor's 2003-04 budget proposal, released two days after his State of the State speech, makes no mention of an Office of Homeland Security. Davis has yet to issue an executive order creating it.

Vinson said that two offices would be tucked under the new agency, the Office of Emergency Services and the Office of Criminal Justice Planning, but that it is too early to know how many employees would be needed.

New money and workers for a new agency seem unlikely, given that the Office of Emergency Services is slated to lose 59 of its 518 positions in the governor's proposed budget. The justice planning office faces more than $13 million in cuts and transfers.

Lawmakers and watchdogs who have studied California's preparedness for terrorist attacks reacted with ambivalence to Davis' move. It follows the creation of similar offices in Missouri, Massachusetts, Tennessee and South Carolina. In November, the White House created a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security with 170,000 employees pulled from 22 federal agencies. President Bush named former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge to head the new department.

"We're trying to get as consistent and congruent as we can" with that federal department, Vinson said.

As recently as last year, in testimony to an independent state oversight agency called the Little Hoover Commission, California officials -- including the director of the Office of Emergency Services, Dallas Jones -- rejected the notion of a new office dedicated to fighting terrorism.

"State officials maintain that California is not as big as the federal government and so does not need an Office of Homeland Security," according to a January 2002 Little Hoover Commission report called "Be Prepared: Getting Ready for New and Uncertain Dangers."

Jones said he still believes that a new bureaucracy is unnecessary to improve California's ability to handle disasters. But a new structure may be needed, he said, to coordinate the disbursement of federal antiterrorism funds in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

What's more, he said, the governor believes that there is a national appetite for high-tech antiterrorism equipment manufactured in California and that it would be the task of the new agency to promote such manufacturers.

In its recommendations, the Little Hoover Commission called the state's public health system the "largest single weakness revealed by the terrorist attacks" and concluded that California should "fortify its structure" for handling emergencies.

"What the commission concluded was the state could benefit from an organizational structure that clarified responsibility and authority," said James P. Mayer, the commission's executive director. "It didn't say specifically that you needed a new office to do that, but a new office could accomplish that."

It is not clear whether a new Office of Homeland Security would strengthen the network California depends on to detect and respond to disease as well as chemical, biological or nuclear attacks. The Little Hoover Commission called that system inadequate to deal with a growing population, let alone an anthrax or smallpox outbreak that could hospitalize thousands of people.

Those on the front line of that county-based public health system said they hope a new agency would improve coordination among bureaucracies.

"If it is staffed by people who have a lot of experience where the rubber meets the road, I think it could do some good," said Kenneth Takata, director of the public health laboratory that monitors diseases in Sacramento County. "The state is filled with very good intentions. They want to do the right thing. I think that they lack, sometimes, experience in the practical application of some of their policy decisions."

The goal is not to create a new bureaucracy, Vinson said, but to rejigger state government to better deal with "a new animal."

"One of the reasons the governor wanted it done is because we think we're going to be at this awhile," he said. "This threat of the Islamic extremists is not going to diminish, and if we go to war, we're probably going to have to turn it up some more."

Lawmakers reacted warily last week to Davis' proposal. They questioned whether the state should be installing a new bureaucracy at the same time it contemplates laying off hundreds of state workers to bridge a budget shortfall.

"I'm not sure that, at this time with the budget situation, that that's an appropriate place to put a permanent office," said Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla (D-Pittsburg).

"I'd have to see more details on what exactly that's going to buy us," said Assemblyman Dario Frommer (D-Los Feliz).

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