Air-Quality Bullies Harm Southern Calif.

As a media commentator, and what some might call a part-time pundit, I frequently find myself taking one side or the other on an issue. But the truth is, I am rarely on the front lines—I am less a participant than an observer.

A recent experience, however, may yet turn me into a full-fledged activist.

I recently visited the federal court in Los Angeles with some like-minded friends, to observe a court case that sought an injunction against a little-known but incredibly powerful regulator: the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD).

Some background: In the 1980s, the California Legislature established the SCAQMD in those portions of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties included within what is known as the South Coast Air Basin. The new law made this entity the sole local government institution with the task of all-inclusive and wide-ranging air pollution control within the far reaches of the district. The new law failed to take into account, the law of unintended consequences. What got created was an entity accountable to no one, with the power to tax and ultimately the power to destroy—mostly high paying blue-collar jobs. The kind that did not require a college degree, the kind that serve as stepping stones to a better life.

A local source tipped me off that the SCAQMD was attempting to make a twin-killing: Using tax dollars to create a protest in front of a federal judge, while it stood ready to impose what many small businesses have complained is an unjustified 30% fee increase.

I’ll admit this much: I’m suspicious of regulators, but this sounded far-fetched even to me.

The proof, however, was in the inbox.

I was shown an e-mail sent by an SCAQMD employee to environmental activists that said the following: “It would be extremely helpful to have as many community members as possible at the hearing on the preliminary injunction next Monday. This is an extremely important proceeding, and it would be very helpful to fill the courtroom to let the judge know that this is an issue that deeply concerns communities throughout the Basin.”

If this is not an attempt by a taxpayer-supported entity to influence a federal judge, words have no meaning anymore.

Once my friends and I were on site, however, things really got strange.

Reporters from both the Los Angeles Times and the San Bernardino Sun talked to us. Instead of asking us why we had gathered as concerned citizens, they asked mostly who we were and why we could possibly want to be there of our own free will. They seemed awfully cynical, but maybe that was just a professional posture. Too bad; they missed a good story.

Later, the executive director of the SCAQMD, Barry R. Wallerstein, and his chief legal counsel came out to talk us as well. They seemed especially nervous. I get the feeling they don’t have to answer too many questions from the public.

They asked everyone’s occupation, and the part of Southern California they live in. Why do you suppose they would want to know that?  I think one of my friends asked for Wallerstein’s address, but was declined. I was, of course, hoping he would invite us over to view what his official bio describes as his favorite hobby: collecting Victorian antiques.

I actually thought the SCAQMD staff was going to tell us we had it all wrong and they would explain to us why they were actually in the right.

Not a chance. They only tried to intimidate us.

One gentleman came up and said he was a “concerned citizen.”  He also asked us where we live. After leaving us, he ended up talking with the SCAQMD executives. We learned later, he was THE head of an environmental group that receives funding from the district.

I believe this is an example of what happens when you stand up to a bully. They gnash their teeth, they shake their fist, and they try to scare the heck out of you. But ultimately, they run away.

Only in this case, the SCAQMD ran away and recently imposed a 30% fee increase to add to an already significant business burden in Southern California. They say this is to fund clean air programs, what they don’t tell you in that most of the increase will go to finance unfunded pension liabilities for district employees. Bet that’s something Mr. Wallerstein doesn’t want to talk about.

This is about more than a few public testy moments from public employees when a group of taxpayers (remember them?) politely ask the most basic and fundamental questions. It raises far more disturbing questions than easy answers, one in particular to those who care about limited government.

One experience, above all others, stands out when I think about what I saw from the South Coast Air Quality Management District. It was a question district officials posed to us: “Don’t you favor policies that promote clean air?” If there is a more apt successor to the famous fascist self-defense that they “made the trains run on time,”—I am not aware of it. If you don’t believe me, click here to see what others are saying.