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Guide Dog Board Threatened

Times Staff Writer

Half a century ago, swindlers throughout California routinely foisted untrained mongrel dogs on blind World War II veterans who needed help to navigate their newly blackened worlds.

In response, California created the Board of Guide Dogs for the Blind, the only state regulator in America charged with ensuring that the canine assistants and their owners are properly prepared by schools and handlers.

Over the decades, the board has guarded California with the determination of a Doberman, permitting only three training schools in the state.

“Guide dogs take you into situations where it’s life and death, and if a dog isn’t properly trained or a student isn’t properly trained, people die,” said board member Jane Brackman, an Altadena anthropologist who used to run Guide Dogs of America, based in Sylmar.

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Now the guide dog board, along with 117 other quasi-independent entities in state government -- many with equally esoteric missions -- are facing elimination. The California Performance Review, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s effort to reshape state government, last August recommended abolishing a third of the state’s 339 boards, saying their functions should be performed not by appointed members but by officials who report to the state’s elected chief executive.

But the efforts have run into resistance from the public, as a panel of Schwarzenegger appointees discovered when they toured the state this fall to solicit opinions on the report.

“Boards and commissions do provide a public good in that they offer an open forum where the public can participate in the decision-making process,” the panel wrote in its own report. “Eliminating these points of access may prevent individuals from taking part in their government.”

The panel recommended keeping one of the most powerful entities, the Air Resources Board, but agreed with the California Performance Review that some boards could be eliminated, particularly those that duplicated existing government functions or were obsolete. The racial profiling panel, for instance, completed its work last year and was disbanded; it now exists only on paper.

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In the next couple of months, Schwarzenegger is expected to decide which elements of the performance review he wants to submit to the Legislature, where it would be subject to a straight up or down vote. The governor could also break out individual proposals and submit them as regular legislation.

Some critics of the performance review argue that its proposals don’t go far enough. “They’re not shrinking government. They’re just getting rid of multi-member boards and substituting bureaucrats,” said Julie D’Angelo Fellmeth, administrative director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego. “They did not go to the hard step and say, ‘Do we really need to regulate guide dog trainers any more?’ ”

The Board of Guide Dogs drew scant attention during the public comment period. Only two people testified, both against eliminating the board. But a closer look at the board shows the strong feelings about its future from its small constituency.

With a strong network of support, the guide dog board has shown great resilience before, beating back an effort by the Legislature to put it down in 1996. The legislative evaluation back then concluded that the board’s rules “appear to be unduly restrictive, very subjective and unnecessary.”

This time around, under the performance review’s proposal, regulation of guide dogs would fall to a new Department of Education and Workforce Preparation.

Supporters argue that the guide dog board plays an important role that would be lost if it were folded into a larger state agency. “You put a small entity like the state board into an overarching entity, and it’s going to get lost in the shuffle,” said Mitch Pomerantz, disability law compliance officer for Los Angeles.

Supporters also say the proposal calls for fixing something that’s not broken.

“Most people in California are pretty happy with the board,” said Sheila Styron, president of Guide Dog Users Inc., a national association, and the outgoing leader of California’s guide dog user group. “We would like it to become stronger.”

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Plus, eliminating the seven-member board would not save taxpayers: Its $141,000 annual budget is covered by licensing and renewal fees. That includes the board members’ pay: $100 per diem -- usually for eight days each year -- and expenses.

“I have read how some boards pay these enormous salaries,” said President Allan Brenner. “This is not the case with our board.”

Some guide dog advocates want the board to intercede in what they say is a growing problem of dog lovers with perfectly good sets of eyes bluffing their way into restaurants and onto transportation for the disabled under the lie that their furry companions are guide dogs when they are merely “comfort animals.”

“Folks know that the law is pretty general,” said Pomerantz. “Because they want to get their pet into a location, maybe a restaurant, they are saying the dog is a service animal. Storekeepers are very gun-shy; they don’t want to get in trouble with the law.”

Pomerantz, a guide dog user, said that eliminating the board would hamper California’s efforts to be better regulators. The board has aided successful campaigns that persuaded Hawaii to exempt guide dogs from its animal quarantine -- intended to keep that state rabies-free -- and increased California’s penalties against anyone who interferes with a dog’s maneuvering duties.

The board is also considering how to better handle disputes between schools and new dog users over a dog’s welfare and evaluating whether to expand its responsibilities to make sure licensed schools remain viable.

The latter issue has popped up this year around the Guide Dogs of the Desert International, a Palm Springs school that has been having financial problems. The school’s license was automatically suspended for two weeks in March when its only licensed trainer left. The trainer has since been replaced.

“I’m encouraging the board, if it’s going to continue to exist, to license any school that wants to do business in California,” said Bob Phillips, president of Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, the largest of the state’s three schools. “The board should be strengthened and provide a high-level competent licensure and relicense process,” he said.

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The actual training of both dogs and their blind users is left to individual schools, which are charities that rely on donations. In addition to the three schools in California, there are seven others in the country. Typically, newly blind clients live at the school for 28 days, where each client and his or her assigned dog -- referred to as a “team” -- are taught to function together. The training is free to dog users, but the process can cost schools as much as $50,000. California schools graduated 409 teams last year.

Along with making sure that blind people get appropriately trained animals, California’s board also is charged with ensuring that school donors are not scammed by unscrupulous operators. Its members say the possibility of fraud is real.

They cite a couple who tried to start a school in California in 1997 but were rejected. The couple then set up business in New York, where the attorney general’s office recently charged them with spending on themselves more than half the $200,000 they had raised on behalf of three schools they set up, without graduating even one guide dog.


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