In the month since business-friendly Republicans became the majority on the board overseeing the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the agency has fired its longtime general manager and reconfirmed a controversial rule that would let oil refiners, power plants and other major polluters keep spewing more smog-producing emissions for a longer period of time. Frustrated by the ideological shift at one of the nation's most innovative and aggressive environmental regulatory agencies, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León has proposed stacking the board with more environmentally minded state appointees.
De León is right, to a degree. The recent votes by the new AQMD board are really worrisome. The agency's mission is to protect public health. Yet some of the new members have said they want to ease the regulations on polluting businesses, and that having a job is as important for a person's health as having clean air. (Tell that to the dad rushing his child to the emergency room with a severe asthma attack, or the residents enduring nose bleeds and headaches near certain toxic industrial operations.)
But before De León and other lawmakers start rewriting the law to readjust the balance of power on the board, they ought to make sure that today's solution doesn't become tomorrow's problem.
The board currently has 13 members: three state appointees picked by the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate leaders, and 10 local elected officials from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. De León's proposal would have legislative leaders and the governor fill three more seats: one public health expert and two "environmental justice" appointees who represent communities with the worst air pollution.
This sort of change isn't unprecedented. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill in 2007 that added two seats — one for a doctor, the other for a scientist, both appointed by the governor — to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. Proponents argued that local elected officials sitting on the board were too close to the oil and agriculture industries to adopt strong regulations.
But De León's plan would give state lawmakers more than a third of the seats on a regional board that is supposed to make regional decisions for Southern California. Is it appropriate to cede that much local control to Sacramento? An infusion of state-capital influence may sound like a good idea today, when De León and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon are from Los Angeles and have a commitment to environmental leadership at the AQMD. But what happens when the future Assembly speaker is from Eureka? Or a future business-friendly governor chooses to appoint members eager to slash regulations? At least residents in Southern California have the power to vote for elected leaders who can reverse the recent ideological shift on the AQMD board.
There's another concerning aspect of the proposal. Board members now serve four-year terms, which De León would eliminate in favor of at-will appointments that could be revoked at any time by the appointing authority. However, the current shift on the board was set in motion when Orange County cities refused to reappoint clean energy advocate and Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido. If there were no set terms, Pulido would have been ousted and the pro-business faction would have had their majority on the AQMD board long ago. Imagine the revolving door of leadership and the lobbying that would go on if appointing agencies or officeholders could yank their appointees over every controversial decision. Fixed terms can offer stability for the board and cover for board members to make politically difficult choices.
The upheaval at the AQMD should be a wake-up call for anyone who cares about clean air and public health. But lawmakers need to slow down and find the right fix.