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Trouble in Paradise 

A regional environmental official’s departure raises questions

Wednesday, Jan 16 2002

Just last month, Mary Angle was a star in the rarefied firmament of Southern California natural-resource management.

She had been a park ranger, a member of former Senator Alan Cranston’s staff and an executive for Save the Redwoods before taking on the $77,000-a-year job as director of the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy (RMC for short). But her sudden ouster last month casts a shadow on a new project to bring green space to this region‘s forgotten rust-belt cities.

Accolades at her farewell last week were generous, but questions linger as to why she was replaced, in an ”emergency“ action, by a top staffer of the most powerful land-resource agency in the state.

Angle served 17 months at the newest of the state’s regional land-acquisition trusts. With one paid staffer, volunteers, and resources in the hundred thousands, she had managed to ease two potential recreation and wildlife areas toward public ownership.

More importantly, she oversaw the creation of a complex master plan called ”Common Ground: From the Mountains to the Sea.“ This was a chart, guide and text for the first network of riverside and parkland green spaces in any Southern California urban area. Now, however, Angle‘s being replaced by Belinda Faustinos, the second-in-command of RMC’s better-known big sister, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC), and some wonder about the RMC‘s future as an independent agency.

It’s more than 20 years since, at the urging of the emergent environmental movement, the state decided to protect California‘s urban hinterlands from overdevelopment with local land-purchase agencies. The biggest and best known of these is the Westside-centered Santa Monica agency. According to its Web site, ”[T]he Conservancy’s mission is to strategically buy back, preserve, protect, restore, and enhance treasured pieces of Southern California to form an interlinking system of urban, rural, and river parks; open space; trails; and wildlife habitats that are easily accessible to the general public.“ The funds come from federal, state, local and private agencies. Most of Santa Monica‘s funding now goes through an adjunct agency -- the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, with a reported $35 million annual budget. The Santa Monica agency was a partner in the San Gabriel group’s Common Grounds plan, and vows to move ahead with the plan.

But the San Gabriel conservancy‘s objective differs from Santa Monica’s. Its ultimate purpose is not just land acquisition, but renovation and the cleaning up of ground and river water. The first California nature conservancy for an urban area, RMC is to re-develop and acquire potential environmental resources for 7 million people in eastern Los Angeles and Orange counties. The final goal is an array of population-proximate wilderness-recreation passages and parks like those of San Mateo, Marin and Alameda counties.

Angle‘s start-up efforts gained praise from official agencies -- including the office of county Supervisor Gloria Molina, who sits on the 13-voting-member, state-appointed River and Mountains Conservancy board to which Angle reported.

No one questions Faustinos’ capability, but some see her as being too closely tied to her current boss, the Santa Monica agency‘s potent and charismatic chief, Joe Edmiston. Her appointment nearly coincides with what the Gray Davis administration hopes will be the passage this spring of a parks-bond initiative that could provide $40 million for the previously cash-strapped RMC.

”Belinda Faustinos is an experienced public servant, but you have to wonder which orientation she’s bringing with her to the RMC,“ said Melanie Winter of the River Project, the nonprofit agency behind the downtown Taylor Yards acquisition.

Angle submitted her resignation in December, after her board voted on her tenure in closed session. The vote followed disagreements over such matters as a stymied request for additional staff and, according to one board memorandum, placing some RMC territory into SMMC‘s jurisdiction. In any case, California Resources Agency spokesman Stanley Young said the change ”was mutually agreeable. [Angle] was planning on leaving this summer. Faustinos was available.“ But Angle insists that, while she was privately considering leaving later this year, she hadn’t yet shared this thought with her employers.

Winter noted: ”Given the legislative history of the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, it will be interesting to see how the cities along the Lower Los Angeles River react to this turn of events,“ referring to these communities‘ successful opposition to a 1990s Sacramento bid to plug the Santa Monica conservancy into proposed riverfront conservation. The cities’ officials then feared that flood prevention might suffer. RMC board (and Long Beach City Council) chairman Frank Colonna said things have changed since: ”We‘ve met with Joe Edmiston for a long time since then, and there’s more trust.“

U.S. Representative Hilda Solis -- who, as a state senator, co-authored the legislation that set up RMC -- sounded skeptical about the management switch. ”This certainly wasn‘t my decision,“ she said after last Friday’s board meeting in Alhambra. The congresswoman earlier stressed that the conservancies had different objectives: ”We‘re talking about an environmental-justice situation here . . . The a SMMC acquires pristine land,“ while the RMC’s territory is mostly overused agricultural and industrial tracts. ”We‘ve got three federal Superfund sites in our area,“ she noted. ”It will take a lot of technical experience to make them usable.“ Solis has proposed federal legislation to survey the area for locations that could become federal recreation or park land. U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer’s proposed a similar bill.

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