The chairman of the California Air Resources Board, Robert F. Sawyer, was fired by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this week amid mounting criticism of the agency's leadership on global warming and air pollution policies.
Sawyer and the governor's office gave sharply differing accounts of why he was let go after 18 months at the helm of what has long been described as the world's most influential air pollution regulatory agency.
"I was fired, I did not resign.... The entire issue is the independence of the board, and that's why I got fired," Sawyer said in a telephone interview with The Times. He said that though the 11-member board is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the governor, "there's also an incredible tradition of independence. I have board members going all the way back to [Gov. Pete] Wilson's time, and they tell me they have never seen such a level of interference as is occurring at this time, and that's what this is all about."
Sawyer said he had declined to fire the agency's embattled executive director, Catherine Witherspoon, and objected when his longtime communications director Jerry Martin was also fired, then reassigned to another agency by the governor's office without notifying him. Finally, last week, he said he was called by a Cabinet secretary who ordered him to limit to three the number of so-called early action measures the board was considering to slow global warming.
Environmentalists complained bitterly that the three measures, approved by the board, were not enough, and Sawyer, ignoring the order he had received, unsuccessfully sought to persuade fellow board members to add more measures to the list.
He said he was baffled two days after the vote when the governor issued a news release criticizing the board for not taking more action.
In the statement, Schwarzenegger also criticized the board for approving a request by San Joaquin Valley air quality authorities to seek an 11-year extension of a federal deadline for complying with the Clean Air Act.
"I was deeply disappointed," Schwarzenegger said. "The air board let the federal government off the hook by seeking delay."
Sawyer said he requested a meeting with the governor's chief advisor, Susan Kennedy, to clear up the "mixed signals." Instead he was asked by Kennedy to retire, and when he refused, was handed a letter signed by the governor saying his appointment had been rescinded.
"I cleared out my office today," Sawyer said Thursday.
Sawyer said that despite his disagreements with the governor's office, he never questioned Schwarzenegger's commitment to air-pollution and climate-change policies, and that he enjoyed "nearly every minute" of his time as chairman.
Schwarzenegger's deputy chief of communications, Adam Mendelsohn, said the governor's office did not think the air board or its staff were moving aggressively enough on air pollution and global warming.
"The issue really came to a head after the decision to ask for an extension in the San Joaquin Valley, and the lack of early action items that we wanted done ... last week," Mendelsohn said. He said the items Sawyer proposed were minor, while the governor's office was seeking far tougher measures to control emissions from concrete factories and other sources.
The shake-up comes as Witherspoon and her staff struggle to implement many of the state's ambitious climate-change initiatives, along with now overdue federal clean-air plans for the Central Valley and Southern California.
Mendelsohn said the administration first became upset with the agency when Witherspoon, without consulting the governor's office, sent a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last spring seeking a long postponement of a federal deadline to clean up diesel soot.
"With the health threats of California air quality, this is a very high priority," Mendelsohn said.
Reaction to Sawyer's dismissal by industry representatives, environmentalists and other elected officials was mixed.
State Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter), who represents the Central Valley, said Sawyer's departure was "a good first step toward restoring confidence in a board many feel has lost sight of its ultimate goal."
Some environmentalists said they were not happy with all recent air board decisions, but they defended Sawyer.
"This is a sad and tragic day, and Bob Sawyer deserved far better," said V. John White, head of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, an environmental and renewable energy nonprofit.
Bill Magavern of the Sierra Club's California office said Sawyer had made a strong mark in his 18 months, shepherding through tough new regulations on formaldehyde, dry-cleaning chemicals and other pollutants.
Construction industry representatives also expressed concern about Sawyer's departure.
"He was somebody who was very much involved in the issues we're concerned about ... and I hate to lose his knowledge at this particular moment," said Mike Lewis, head of the Construction Industry Air Quality Coalition, a statewide organization of contractors, homebuilders and other construction companies.
He said that with the new greenhouse gas policies, the federal deadlines on air pollution plans and a pending vote on a proposed construction rule, "right now the air board is getting buffeted by all sides."
Schwarzenegger spokesman Mendelsohn said the administration would move quickly to name a replacement for Sawyer.
"This is priority one," he said.