The board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, now dominated by pro-business members, voted 7-6 Friday to remove Barry Wallerstein, its longtime top executive. The action suggests the AQMD may be taking a more conservative approach to battling the L.A. Basin's air pollution, which is among the worst in the nation.
The vote to remove Wallerstein came just months after membership of the 13-member board, which dictates air quality control policies for four Southern California counties, shifted to a majority of Republican members.
Wallerstein's removal comes just as the district is about to put a new air quality management plan into effect.
"I'm very, very worried about who would be in line to take over [if Wallerstein is removed]," said Montebello resident Yvonne Watson before the board retreated to a closed session to vote on his fate. She was one of about 30 to give public comment: all spoke in favor of keeping Wallerstein at AQMD.
The board voted to install its chief financial officer Michael B. O'Kelly as interim executive officer. It was a party-line vote, with the board's seven Republican members voting to fire Wallerstein, and the five Democrats and one independent voting no.
Some 30 members of the public and representatives of various environmental groups spoke against firing Wallerstein, who had worked for the district since 1984. He spent the past 18 years as executive officer.
Several speakers, who said they had breathing difficulties like asthma, praised Wallerstein's efforts over the years to make the region's air better.
"Today when you make that decision, know that your names will be etched on the lungs of our community members," said Sylvia Betancourt with the Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma.
Another speaker talked over the recorded rasping sound of the machine her son uses to clear his lungs each night.
Others said the board, in removing Wallerstein, would be kowtowing to polluters or following a conservative political agenda that favors business interests over the region's health.
"We're concerned here that businesses that pollute are attempting to take control of this board to tilt the game board in their favor," said Sierra Club member Ken Minault
Chairman Bill Burke reminded the audience several times to avoid applauding the speakers, each of whom called on the board to not dismiss Wallerstein.
There were no public calls for Wallerstein's removal, even though there had been plenty of business organizations represented in the meeting hall just minutes earlier. Representatives of business groups pleaded with the board to not reopen debate on new restrictions on nitrogen oxides that were approved in December. They were less stringent than Wallerstein and his staff had recommended. The board voted instead for a plan favored by the Western States Petroleum Association and other businesses.
"As a rule, we do not comment on personnel decisions at SCAQMD," WSPA president Catherine Reheis-Boyd said in a written statement. "WSPA, as one of SCAQMD’s many regional stakeholders, has maintained a professional working relationship with the executive and staff. We look forward to continuing a productive dialogue on issues that shape air quality and energy resources in the South Coast."
The board members did not openly discuss Wallerstein during the meeting. The vote to remove him came during the board's closed session, where personnel matters are routinely handled.
The addition of Lake Forest city councilman Dwight Robinson in November represented the seventh Republican on the board. The other members include five Democrats and one who declines to state a political affiliation.
“We are concerned that today’s vote signifies that the board’s new members are gearing up to undermine and weaken one of the nation’s most important air regulatory agencies," said Morgan Wyenn, a staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in a written statement. "The role of executive officer is a difficult job. But it's hugely important. Our region deserves someone who has the guts to adopt and enforce needed regulations to clean up the air.”
Arrayed in seats behind the speaker podiums were about a dozen people wearing Sierra Club T-shirts. Some had come from the Coachella Valley to address the board.
A few speakers voiced concerns that the ouster of the AQMD's longtime executive by a newly conservative-leaning board mirrored the recent firing of Charles Lester, who was head of the California Coastal Commission.
"I'm very concerned that Dr. Wallerstein is being forced out in a similar manner as at the California Coastal Commission," said Los Angeles resident Vern Taylor. "I'm beginning to sense an ideological and political agenda that is reflected in our national Republican politics."
Sen. Pro Tem Kevin DeLeon called the dismissal a "shameful action" by the AQMD board, describing it as "only the latest in a disturbing trend of dirty energy interests dismantling clean air rules that the public overwhelmingly supports."
Los Angeles County Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis sent a message to the board Friday asking it to retain Wallerstein. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a statement supporting Wallerstein on Thursday.