By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Burke has steadfastly denied having any conflicts of interest between his work on the marathon and the boards on which he sits. At the AQMD, for example, he says the agency’s lawyers give him a memo before a meeting advising him of any potential conflicts.
He says his wide-ranging interest in political campaigns and contributions to strong leaders is no cause for alarm. “Everybody has a right to give back to the environment in which they exist,” said Burke. “If I was looking to feather my nest, I would consolidate my contributions and make them more effective in one location. Not my purpose.”
All in all, however, more scrutiny of potential conflicts of interest is needed, said Jim Knox, who heads Common Cause California. “It’s impossible to look at any level of government where decision makers don’t have interests,” he said. “Particularly at the agency level, it’s not well-scrutinized.”
The agencies themselves also must play a role, appointing ethics officers to place greater priority on observance of conflict-of-interest requirements, said Bob Stern, an attorney and president of the Center for Governmental Studies, who helped draft the state’s Political Reform Act of 1974. “Most agencies don’t take it very seriously,” he said. “They adopt the broadest possible code.”
Which way will the AQMD and the CARB go as they confront deteriorating air quality and the ill health it causes for the region’s residents? Air quality in the Los Angeles area has degraded quickly, with the number of unhealthful days increasing from 36, the all-time low, to 68 days last year, the same number as the year when Burke became chair of the AQMD.
Said Burke: “I think my voting records stand that I’ve been an advocate for the people.”
Smog Gets Personal
I am on my way to Diamond Bar, racing through a brownish-orange haze that obscures the outlines of buildings in the Pomona Valley. It’s December 5, 2003, and I’m remembering the empty chair placed in honor of my daughter’s second-grade teacher a few years back in South Pasadena. For the first time in years, Pat Bermingham was unable to attend the annual rite of passage for fifth graders, who soon would move on to the town’s middle school. Bermingham, a nonsmoker who spent much of her life in the polluted city of Arcadia, had been diagnosed with lung cancer.
It will never be known what caused her cancer. However, epidemiological studies show that Bermingham may have been one of the 10,000 or more residents of the Los Angeles area who can expect to die from air pollution–related cancer. Thousands more will die from pollution-related respiratory and heart ailments. The middle-aged mother — known for teaching, and for her patient and gentle attention to the emotional needs of her young students — was deeply missed that day.
As I pulled into the parking lot of the AQMD headquarters, the board prepared to allow several power plants to re-enter a pollution-trading program that would permit the city of Los Angeles to increase emissions from its electrical generating stations. Increased production would mean more money flowing to the city of Los Angeles’ coffers. It also would mean continued pollution blowing in the gentle sea breezes that cross the San Gabriel Valley.
This was a familiar place to me, with its solar-powered, electric car–charging station and its energy-conservation features. I had labored there for almost 14 years, joining the organization as a media spokesman at a time of hope and revitalization in 1988. A new board and executive officer, James M. Lents, stunningly announced that they had a plan to restore the air in Los Angeles, the most polluted city in the nation, within a generation. At its core: a transition to electric cars powered by renewable energy — wind, solar, biomass and renewable fuels. For years, I intensely helped media from around the world cover the environmental revolution occurring in Los Angeles.
The agency made rapid progress, adopting rules to shift industries to low-polluting materials, to clean up power plants, foundries and refineries, and to promote carpooling and cleaner household products. It launched a technology-advancement program to fund development of cleaner vehicles and renewable-energy systems, such as the solar-charge port that still stands at AQMD today.
Air pollution plummeted from 178 days above the federal health standard for ozone when I joined AQMD in 1988 to 68 days when Lents was sacked in 1997, a 62 percent decline in 10 years. In the midst of such success, Lents had been assailed by a coalition of strange bedfellows on his own board — including some conservative Republicans, and some members of color, who said he had been insensitive to Latinos and African-Americans. Now some of the same members who, four years earlier, had rejected his proposed new rules to reduce toxic air pollution — the very elements of environmental justice — joined together to fire him. It seemed ironic when William A. Burke said the chief executive officer needed to be more concerned about environmental justice.
After Lents left, progress stalled.
Rather than stretching its legal authority to get a handle on growing pollution from the city of Los Angeles’ gigantic port and airport operations, the AQMD engaged in finger-pointing and blamed the federal government and state for failing to control the problem.
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