State Quake Commission Given a Jolt
As San Francisco commemorated the 100th anniversary of the great quake of 1906, a drama of another sort was roiling the California seismic safety community.
Shortly after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger marked the anniversary by promising to improve seismic safety in the state, one of his aides told two outspoken members of the California Seismic Safety Commission that they were being removed from office -- effective immediately.
One was Lucy Jones, the U.S. Geological Survey seismologist famous for her calming appearances on television after Southern California temblors.
The firings were rescinded within hours Tuesday, but the actions underscored a behind-the-scenes battle over the future of the commission, the state’s only independent body dealing with earthquake safety.
Schwarzenegger last fall vetoed a bill that would have funded the commission beyond its sunset date of July 2007, suggesting that the agency’s work could be done as easily by employees already working for state safety agencies.
The administration has backed off from an initial proposal to eliminate the commission altogether and now suggests that it be subsumed by the State and Consumer Services Agency.
The commission, which has at times been a thorn in the side of both the business community and state government, is funded through a fee levied on insurance policies sold in the state -- a mechanism vehemently opposed by that industry.
A former president of the Personal Insurance Federation of California, one of the groups against charging the fee on policies, is now Schwarzenegger’s chief policy advisor and served as his spokesman in a discussion with The Times on Wednesday about the Seismic Safety Commission.
Dan Dunmoyer said the administration wants to find a different source of funding for the commission, to avoid lawsuits from insurers over the fee. Currently, insurers must pay 7 cents per policy from millions of insurance policies statewide. The proceeds, about $900,000 per year, fund the commission and pay for its half-dozen employees.
The commission’s mandate -- researching ways to make Californians safer in earthquakes -- may seem benign, but actually it is highly political.
The agency makes recommendations that could cost billions of dollars and might open the state or private companies to liability -- urging seismic retrofitting of schools, hospitals and other buildings and insisting that California develop a comprehensive plan to deal with the risk of tsunamis.
On Wednesday, Schwarzenegger said his proposal to bring the commission under the auspices of the State and Consumer Services Agency would give the panel more power by providing it an advocate within the administration.
“Right now it’s floating out there by itself, and it’s really not accomplishing as much as we expect,” Schwarzenegger said.
The state’s failure to follow through on such commission recommendations as the seismic upgrade of hospitals and schools, the governor said, was a result of the board’s lack of influence. The concerns of the insurance industry have not influenced his thinking on the matter, he said.
Dunmoyer conceded that making the commission part of a state agency was a “double-edged sword,” but said the shift would strengthen the board, not weaken it.
But Jones and other seismic safety advocates say the move would politicize the commission, when it is vital for its work to remain independent.
“The state needs an independent Seismic Safety Commission,” Jones said. “We need the best technical minds on earthquakes to be able to make recommendations that don’t get filtered through politics.”
For example, Jones said, last year she spotted a provision buried in a budget bill that would have exempted community colleges from meeting state earthquake standards for schools. The scientist went to the Legislature and testified that the provision would put students at risk; the measure was removed from the bill.
A year later, the idea reappeared -- as part of the governor’s bill proposing a huge bond measure for schools and other infrastructure.
“As recently as last month this was again back in the bond,” said Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo). “Without the Seismic Safety Commission, it would be difficult for someone with the requisite level of authority to call attention to the seriousness of this provision.”
Blakeslee, a geophysicist by training, said seismic retrofitting work is expensive and -- as a result -- unpopular politically. The commission’s recommendations often shed light on “billions of dollars worth of decisions,” Blakeslee said. “You’ve got powerful entities that may not want such advice to be vetted publicly.”
The assemblyman was discussing earthquake safety with Jones when she got the call from the governor’s office saying she had been fired.
The two were speakers at a massive scientific and emergency preparedness conference held in San Francisco this week as part of the commemoration of the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake.
Word spread quickly through the conference that Jones -- who is internationally renowned as a scientist and for her role in promoting earthquake safety -- had been let go, shocking participants and provoking an angry response from legislators who had been working closely with the administration to reach a compromise.
After repeated phone calls from legislative offices including those of State Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara) -- a safety advocate whose husband founded the Seismic Safety Commission -- and Assemblywoman Carol Liu (D-La Canada Flintridge), who serves on the commission, Jones and her colleague Gary McGavin were reinstated later in the day.
“It was extremely upsetting ... because we had a working agreement with the administration and our initial impression was that it was not being honored,” said Sailaja Cherukuri, Alquist’s chief of staff.
She said she was on the phone four times Tuesday with Schwarzenegger Cabinet Secretary Fred Aguiar lobbying on behalf of the commissioners. Aides to the governor refused to discuss the situation, saying it was a personnel matter, but Cherukuri said Aguiar had told her the phone calls were made due to a mix-up.
Led by Alquist, supporters of the commission have been negotiating with the administration for months to save the agency. Cherukuri said Wednesday that an agreement was near that would bring the commission under state control but leave it considerable independence.
“Under the compromise currently being discussed ... the commission will move under the auspices of the State and Consumer Services Agency, but it will retain its complete and full policymaking autonomy,” Cherukuri said.
Cherukuri said the deal -- if approved by both sides before the end of the legislative session this summer -- would allow the commission to hire its own staff and director, a move aimed at allowing greater independence.
To accommodate the administration’s desire to end the fee on insurance policies, Alquist is trying to find another way of funding the commission and its half-dozen employees, Cherukuri said.
Language reflecting the proposed compromise could be inserted in a bill as soon as Tuesday, she said.
Times staff writer Peter Nicholas contributed to this report.