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Trouble in Paradise

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.

The current directorial transition apparently originates in Sacramento, though state Resources Secretary Mary Nichols, who appoints the board members, said that ”It is absolutely not true“ that there‘s any intention to meld the two conservancies.

Meanwhile, Edmiston issued a celebratory e-mail in which he proclaimed that Faustinos’ ”interim“ takeover from Angle was ”truly good news for the RMC and for the conservancy movement in general.“ The online Edmiston added that his own conservancy‘s next board meeting would ”be preceded by a gala party for Belinda.“

Edmiston, in a telephone interview, vowed that ”Belinda would be independent. Of course, I’d be there to answer the phone if she called for help on certain details.“ Edmiston lauded Faustinos‘ qualifications and experience, which include her Eastside work on a Whittier-area flyway project. Even Edmiston’s critics call Faustinos an effective and popular official.

Angle herself worked for Edmiston before taking the director‘s job; sources say the two ended up mutually unimpressed. Edmiston, however, is a major political dynamo, whom the Daily News called ”perhaps the state’s most powerful and well-connected non-elected official.“ Over 20 years, his conservancy has presided over the acquisition of more than seven square miles of public lands -- worth over $200 million -- for park and recreation purposes, from Camarillo to the Whittier Hills. ”Joe is very good at what he does,“ said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky has said that if Edmiston ”were a real estate developer, he‘d be a billionaire.“ But money isn’t everything. Even Eli Broad probably hasn‘t got the city, county and Sacramento clout Edmiston has -- let alone his own sworn, armed police force in bottle-green uniforms, plus executive offices in one of the conservancy’s prime (and most controversial) acquisitions: Barbra Streisand‘s old Malibu estate.

Most Edmiston critics won’t talk on the record. One who does is Sue Nelson, executive director of the Friends of the Santa Monica Mountains, Parks and Seashore, the conservancy‘s predecessor. That group was formed to oppose a 1960s freeway proposal through those very mountains down to a four-level interchange with a tentative coastal interstate in Malibu Lagoon. Outraged early environmentalists like Nelson allied with local landowners to fight the scheme. As a result, the conservancy was legislated as an agency to save such undeveloped ”open space“ via state, federal and private funding. Since then, the Santa Monica agency has outgrown its designated region and, Nelson contends, become politicized: ”Joe’s become a broker between the community that doesn‘t want growth and the owners who want to unload their properties.“

The result, she contends, has been both over-expansion and a consequent failure to consummate vital acquisitions within the original Santa Monica Mountains area. The agency’s fiscal fortunes have seesawed. The Santa Monica conservancy had a reported $80 million budget in the late ‘80s. But according to the Daily News, it was running on a $300,000 emergency state allocation by late 1999. Yet the list of illustrious acquisitions and the area of influence keep expanding.

Which is why Edmiston critics claim Faustinos’ appointment is the Edmiston camel‘s nose under the RMC’s tent.

”Belinda‘s never had any independent authority,“ one critic said. In any case, the abrupt transition at the RMC seems to have left some of its board members tongue-tied. Said member Margaret Clark, a Rosemead city councilwoman, ”I wish I hadn’t answered the phone . . . if I said I was pleased with the transition, I‘d sound like I was criticizing Mary’s work. Which I won‘t do.“

At last Friday’s hearing, board member Paul Yost of the League of Conservation Voters queried the action‘s haste -- ”I’m not confident that this deserves [being] an emergency addition to our agenda“ -- although he voted for the change.

The unanimous action was so hasty that Faustinos ended up with a temporary appointment as ”administrative consultant,“ pending the need for another month to make her director‘s appointment legal.

Brea Councilwoman and board member Beth Perry said the Faustinos appointment was suggested by state Resources Secretary Nichols herself. Perry said she looked forward to working with Faustinos, who may bring some of her own staff. ”Mary [Angle] did good work for us, but she wanted to move on . . . It’s a win-win situation for everyone.‘’

Angle‘s problem may have been that, however successful she was in planning acquisitions and organizing the benchmark report, she was unable to maintain support of all of her board’s members and get staff to meet those members‘ diverse demands. Angle declined to go beyond saying that “In this job, I had to please officials of over 60 cities, two counties, the state and federal government. [Doing this] with just one paid assistant was not possible.” Colonna said of the board’s relationship with Angle: “We did a lot of growing up together.”

The slightly contradictory board consensus expressed at Friday‘s hearing was that Angle did an excellent job, but Faustinos could better carry on. Richard Ruiz, an environmental consultant and board member, said: “Mary brought an incredible amount of passion to the job and got an incredible amount done. We owe her a lot. But now we may need a different set of skills.”

If Congresswoman Solis has her way, however, that skill set could eventually come from the U.S. National Park Service or some other federal resource agency. As for the SMMC’s influence on the RMC and the forthcoming stages of the Common Ground project, one consultant said: “This is a joke whose punch line we‘ll hear in five years.”


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