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AQMD executive Wallerstein is fired by divided board

LOS ANGELES — A divided South Coast Air Quality Management District Board voted March 3 to fire its longtime executive officer, Barry Wallerstein, over the protests of various environmental groups and local elected officials.

The board appointed its chief financial officer, Michael O’Kelly, to serve as the interim executive officer.

Wallerstein had been AQMD’s executive officer since 1997. He had been with the agency since 1984. The board voted 7-6 to oust him.

Board members reached the decision in a closed session. They did not comment on the move in open session.

Although he received high marks from many local elected officials — mostly Democrats — a new Republican majority on the AQMD board appears intent on moving the agency in a different direction, possibly leaning toward pollution-control policies more friendly to businesses.

Highland Mayor Larry McCallon, a Republican who sits on the board, told the Los Angeles Times the panel has to address the problems businesses face due to often costly pollution regulations.

“I believe that having jobs are just as important for a person’s health, for a family’s health, as having clean air,” McCallon told The Times.

But McCallon downplayed the significance of the board having a Republican majority, noting that a recent vote to reject proposed pollution-control measures crossed party lines.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, called the board’s vote “shameful.”

“Today’s shameful action by SCAQMD is only the latest in a disturbing trend of dirty energy interests dismantling clean air rules that the public overwhelmingly supports,” he said. “Californians recognize the importance of transitioning away from fossil fuels and building a clean energy future, both to prevent climate change and improve local air quality. We need strong leadership to address some of the worst air quality in the nation, not a rubber stamp committee for the oil industry agenda.”

De Leon said the board carried out a “hostile takeover” led by county Supervisor and AQMD board member Mike Antonovich.

Antonovich, while declining to reveal details of the board’s closed-session discussion about Wallerstein, shot back that de Leon “is misinformed.”

“I will remind the senator that Dr. Wallerstein’s job was to implement the policies set into motion by the 13-member governing board,” he said. “The board as a whole, not one individual, has made tremendous strides in moving forward to reduce harmful emissions and we will continue to aggressively fight to protect public health.”

Environmentalists went on the alert when news of Wallerstein’s possible ouster broke in late February. The Coalition for Clean Air issued a statement saying its leadership is “greatly concerned about the future of air quality in the region and the motives behind such a move.”

Under Wallerstein’s watch, “days exceeding the 2008 federal ozone standard have dropped by one-third,” according to the coalition. “Today, for the first time, new clean air technologies provide us a viable path to meeting air quality standards.”

Los Angeles County Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl issued a joint statement March 3 calling for Wallerstein to be retained by the board.

“The agency’s website states that it is ‘committed to protecting the health of residents, while remaining sensitive to businesses,’” they said. “Today, however, it appears that the SCAQMD board may be moving toward compromising that mission, weighing economic concerns more heavily than the agency’s core mission of protecting public health.

“We strongly believe that the health and safety of every resident of Los Angeles County must continue to be front-and-center of the agency’s efforts. We do not wish to see a rollback of SCAQMD’s safeguards and standards and urge the board to reaffirm its commitment to its core mission.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also threw his support Wallerstein.

“Under Barry and his staff’s impressive leadership, SCAQMD has become a world leader in air quality management, and I will do everything possible to ensure future leadership upholds that reputation and resists rolling back existing regulations that protect the air we breathe,” he said. “We must stay on an ambitious path forward that prioritizes the health of our communities, creates green jobs and businesses and advances zero-emission vehicles.”

Wallerstein is the second leader of an environmental protection agency in California to be ousted this year. California Coastal Commission Executive Director Charles Lester was fired in February in a move that sparked outrage among environmentalists. Commission members said the termination revolved around leadership — not environmental — issues.