Right after I spoke at the Air Quality Management District board meeting Friday, several people asked me if I'd noticed what happened during my discussion with Chairman William Burke.
I had not. Evidently, the sergeant at arms at the meeting had appeared just behind me. A gentleman in the crowd, Randy Brown (who also spoke against the proposed beach bonfire ban) explained to me that the "enforcer" was there to potentially deal with me, I suppose, because I was speaking somewhat forcefully to the chairman, and they were nervous about that.
Nervous about a concerned citizen speaking on behalf of other concerned citizens in view of a draconian, unannounced (to our city, anyway) proposal that would ban all beach bonfires in Southern California — before any evidence had even been collected to prove a case.
It was a surreal day to say the least. When the Huntington Beach contingent arrived that morning, I saw Burke in the cafeteria sitting with some other board members. The day before the meeting, I'd asked AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood for an interview. I received this: "I'm going to decline comment at this time. I expect that SCAQMD's Board will engage in some discussion of this proposal during their meeting tomorrow and you should be able to get all the information you need from that exchange."
In common parlance, no direct questions from the media. Not one.
So I introduced myself to Burke and he invited me to sit down with his group. Also there was executive officer Barry Wallerstein, whom I interviewed at last week's meeting. As you might recall, he directly contradicted what I'd been told by another board member in regards to whether or not any scientific research had been done yet in Huntington Beach. He did not look happy to see me, but Burke insisted I pull up a chair.
I asked Burke if I could tape the session, which he seemed to have no problem with. But Wallerstein did. I explained that after last week's misrepresentations in the press by AQMD, that I wanted a physical record of everything that was said. He accused me of not accurately portraying our conversation last week but I have my fully notated interview and I quoted him precisely and in context. So he was either lying or mistaken.
At the table I asked some questions, like why our city was never notified about the ban. No answer. I also asked about the idea of propane that the AQMD has been floating. Burke said propane, or even natural gas could be used to replace wood. How would that work exactly, I wondered? Would people lug five-gallon tanks to the beach and hook them up to fire pits? "Sure!" Burke said enthusiastically. "Or, if you have a line running to the fire pit, have it like a parking meter. Swipe your credit card, the gas comes on and the fire is automatically ignited."
Can you imagine?
The board meeting began shortly after that. Huntington Beach Mayor Connie Boardman spoke eloquently about how unfair this process has been to our city, how rushed it all seems, and the massive hit our economy would take. Boardman is an esteemed and well-respected environmentalist. Yet Burke all but dismissed everything she said.
There were other speakers, including an officer from the Huntington Beach Fire Department who explained why any alternative involving live gas would be all but insane given the number of fires along our beaches. Burke talked about a Boy Scout camp where propane works just fine.
Steve Bone, CEO of the Huntington Beach Marketing and Visitors Bureau, presented very effectively about why we need a time extension to fight these Kangaroo Court proceedings.
He was flatly denied. Just as AQMD board member Judith Mitchell was when she asked for more time. There are some sensible people within this seemingly myopic Banana Republic called the AQMD, and she is one of them. But to no avail. When asked why Newport couldn't ban its rings and leave Huntington out of it, Burke said that the smoke from Huntington would still make it over to harm our precious neighboring city.
As usual, with zero evidence to back that up.
Then things got weird. Burke and board member Dennis Yates spoke about their experiences in Newport Beach, saying how the bonfires there reminded them of their time spent in Vietnam. Many in the room looked at each other, quite perplexed. Burke elaborated, saying that in a flyover of Newport Beach, it looked as if the area had been "carpet bombed" just like in Vietnam. Again, more surprised looks in the room as these two men continued to compare smoke situations from bonfires and the Fourth of July with the Vietnam War.
When it came my turn to speak, after thanking the men for serving their country, I then said I found it offensive that they were equating Newport Beach bonfires with the Vietnam War. And that's when things got heated.
A hostile Burke scolded me and told me they were entitled their opinion, rudely admonishing me in what I, and many other witnesses, considered to be a highly unprofessional manner (because I had not experienced carpet bombing first hand).
While I didn't raise my voice to Burke's level, I did point out that I found his and his board's actions to be highly arrogant in regards to our city and the rest of Southern California. I asked the board, who had even been to Huntington Beach for a beach bonfire. Only two of them raised their hands. I asked how many knew that there were no private houses on the beach in Huntington? Or that zero public complaints have been filed about bonfires in Huntington Beach? None of them. They know nothing about our city. Yet they want to inflict deep financial and cultural harm on us. And this "science" they are now rushing through to prove their case — how much should we trust it given the incredibly unfair way this fiasco is unfolding?
Yates (who said in the meeting, "You don't need science" to ban the fire pits) was on his Blackberry at one point as I addressed him and I asked him to please put it down and listen. These people seem clueless in dealing with the public. They berate us. They bully us. They ignore us. Yet I'm the one that has the sergeant at arms has poised behind him just in case I go too far. I told Yates how dissatisfied so many of us are with their process. His reply? "You are an angry gentlemen aren't you?" That's how they dismiss people like you and me. Just call us angry. We are the irrational public.
In my opinion, the AQMD had no intention at all of notifying our city this was going to happen. They wanted to just push this through under the radar (remember, we found out by accident). But guess what? We found out and we are fighting back and they're not used to people fighting back and getting in their face. That's what I learned Friday. God forbid a concerned citizen look them in the eye and tell them we don't trust them based on their behavior. God forbid we ask for simple answers, like why the rush and why the lack of transparency?
And what happens to people like us? They get called angry, then an officer moves in close just in case they get dangerous. You know what seems most dangerous of all to William Burke and at least some of his AQMD cronies? The truth.
According to my city hall sources, the California Coastal Commission (which Burke conveniently also sits on the board of) has granted, in principle, Huntington Beach an extra month to research and combat this extreme power grab by the AQMD. So now is the time to organize and apply pressure.
And if they think I'm angry, wait until they the here from the people that I've been hearing from. One board member said he's never been hit with so many emails about an issue. That means we are getting through. So the best thing to do now is to contact the AQMD directly via email: aqmd.gov/govboard/GB-BAMail-Public.pdf.
Let them know how you feel about this.
And I would encourage veterans in particular in particular to let their opinions be known about the Newport Beach – Vietnam comparison.
William Burke seems to have made his mind up early on in this process. Not so fast, sir. The people are angry. So call off your guard. And get ready to deal with us. Remember, we pay for you. And we'd like our money's worth for once.
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 19 books, including the new "Baseball in Orange County," from Arcadia Publishing. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at http://www.facebook.com/hbindependent.
Me speaking at the AQMD board meeting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kis3L6s-k_Q&feature;=youtu.be
My pre-board meeting discussion with William Burke and his board members: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvK3wiULlrM