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All Fired Up

When FEMA failed to respond adequately to last month’s Gulf Coast disaster, outraged citizens demanded and quickly achieved the resignation of its incompetent director, Michael “Brownie” Brown. So why haven’t we also been demanding the resignation of Barry Wallerstein?“Barry who?” you ask. That you don’t even recognize his name is, indeed, the first and most serious count against him.For the last eight years, Wallerstein has been the executive chief of Southern California’s smog-fighting agency — the Air Quality Management District. Given the poisonous brew we breathe every day in one of the globe’s smoggiest basins, don’t you think the top Smog Cop should be a popular and populist crusading public official? And not a faceless, obscure bureaucrat?Then again, if I had Wallerstein’s do-nothing record on smog, I’d also be wary of any public attention.Yes, Wallerstein’s agency — founded in 1976 with authentic environmentalist zeal during the Jerry Brown administration — has been underfunded and under-resourced. And by itself the AQMD is not enough to clean up our toxic air. But Wallerstein has been a weak, if not just anemic, wheezing, voice in defense of his own agency, its budget and its crucial mission, in which we all have a stake.Wallerstein fears controversy, eludes the press and constantly worries that he might offend the agency’s governing board, packed tighter with political hacks than a can of ham. It’s much more concerned with its members’ various parochial interests than it is with our common welfare. I met with Wallerstein as a reporter in the late ’90s. And when I laid out the serious (and fully accurate) charges of an internal whistleblower who had challenged his agency’s car-scrapping program, Wallerstein was infinitely more zealous in defending his management decisions than in exploring a notoriously flawed and failed anti-smog program that ultimately benefited only the oil companies.Sure, now and then, Wallerstein will come up with an ambitious-sounding proposal to clear up our skies. Eventually, his self-interested board will smudge the measure, softening its restrictions on polluters, and Wallerstein — per his pattern — will accede and declare a rather hollow victory. Under his failed leadership, the AQMD no longer has so much as a viable plan to comply with federal clean-air standards. That’s the second and final count against him.But it’s not just Wallerstein who should leave — or be driven out. Let him be accompanied by Bill Burke, chairman of the AQMD board and one of L.A.’s greatest political charlatans and hucksters. Originally appointed to his post in 1993 by then–Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, Burke claimed to be the champion of an “environmental justice” agenda. But his first, most notable action was to gang up with the board’s most pro-business members to depose Wallerstein’s highly respected predecessor, Jim Lents. Lents was a man with a real plan — a vigorous blueprint to seriously fight polluters — and that’s why he’s now history.Burke, meanwhile, had his own plan. He methodically built his L.A. Marathon into a veritable private empire that profited from public largess. And he not only continued to occupy his AQMD post but also took up space on the board of the California Air Resources Board (CARB). While he was supposedly fighting for our clean air, the same Bill Burke was out soliciting and receiving corporate sponsorships for his Marathon enterprise from major polluters ranging from car companies to airlines to power-plant operators. His fellow CARB board members were not surprised when he supported a proposal by General Motors that would have allowed car companies to pay their way out of zero-emission vehicle standards. Instead, they were appalled, and they turned down the offensive measure. As my colleague William Kelly reported in these pages last year, those same board members were “celebrating” the bogus Burke’s departure from their midst.A pity Burke didn’t also step down from the AQMD. His much-trumpeted “environmental justice” initiatives have been given the lie by the AQMD’s own studies. It’s precisely the most impoverished parts of our region — the Wilmington area, southeast L.A. County, areas along the 710 freeway, Pacoima — that continue to pay the highest price for Wallerstein’s and Burke’s failures without any evident abatement. We’ve known for some time that these poverty pockets — thanks to excessive pollution — suffer cancer rates of nearly 5,000 cases per 1 million, in itself an outrageous ratio (environmentalists and responsible regulatory agencies fight to achieve a standard of 1 per million). Against those statistics, the Wallerstein-Burke management is to “environmental justice” more or less what Mike Brown’s response was to effective disaster management. Our passionate indignation over the fiasco in New Orleans was powered by those horrid scenes of people struggling to keep their heads above water while awaiting relief. But every day, here in Los Angeles, even in the invisible but nevertheless omnipresent haze, we and our children breathe a little bit harder trying to suck in enough oxygen to keep our lungs and heads clear. Getting rid of Wallerstein and Burke will hardly solve our problems. But it would be as refreshing and as invigorating as taking a deep breath on those few days we can and feeling only elation — and not the usual noxious catch in our throat and lungs.