Santana: OC Offers Paris Climate Talks a View Toward the Past

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With world leaders gathering in Paris this week for pivotal talks on climate change, California just sent its own message, stepping backwards by handing over Southern California’s air quality regulation to the business lobby.

It’s a move that even some Orange County Republicans are publicly questioning as a bad omen for local government, even though many leaders in our region who hate the Air Quality Management District – like Gov. Jerry Brown’s California Transportation Commission Chairwoman Lucy Dunn (who leads the Orange County Business Council) and Orange County Republican Party Chairman Fred Whittaker – are apparently thrilled over the change.

The whole point of Paris seems to be taking concrete steps, forging leadership. That leads to innovation. Firms need confidence to invest, risk.

Yet if they look to Southern California, the message being sent is hold back. Hang on.

You can fight change.

Southern California just installed a Lake Forest city councilman, Dwight Robinson, with business ties to the LA Ports, as the swing vote tilting the agency regulating our air quality toward Republicans.

Robinson is a senior official at the Los Angeles Harbor Grain Terminal, which transfers commodities like grain into large shipping containers.

Yet if you look at the firm’s website, it doesn’t tell you much about the business or Robinson’s role there.

Indeed, Robinson’s business interests aren’t something you’ll read much about if you visit his city website biography or even his campaign website – even though he’s campaigned numerous times on his business acumen.

Yet you’ll see more about his Sunday school teaching and little league experiences on his official biographies than anything about his business ties.

In an editorial in the Flash Report before the critical vote earlier this month that tilted the air quality agency, Whitaker set the stage for Robison’s assension, touting him as “a businessman and entrepreneur who understands the modern world economy and the necessity of enabling Southland businesses to compete and grow free of destructive regulation by uncomprehending government bureaucrats.”

“From his businesses in the LA Harbor to Lake Forest, Dwight has seen the untold cost on the goods and services average people consume caused by bad regulation. The AQMD badly needs the voice of this self-described ‘serial entrepreneur’ who understands that robust economic growth is necessary for a healthy environment,” Whitaker wrote.

Handing over regulation of my region’s air quality to a “serial entrepreneur” doesn’t instill confidence.

Now local Republicans who I respect as people, like Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait or Republican Central Committee Member TJ Fuentes, will tell you that Robinson is a great guy, a family man, a smart businessman.

Ironically, Tait was the swing vote on installing Robinson – probably the only time in recent memory that he and Dunn (who have battled intensely in Anaheim over business subsidies) have been on the same page.

Now, we’ve written extensively about the corruption questions that in recent years have dogged incumbent AQMD appointee, Santa Ana Democratic Mayor Miguel Pulido. And we’ve also documented questionable practices like employing his brother, Luis, as an AQMD consultant.

Yet other Republicans who I also respect, like Irvine City Councilman Jeff Lalloway or Costa Mesa’s Steve Mensinger, are uncomfortable with the switch. Both – who opposed the change – told me that mixing local governance and political party platforms isn’t smart.

Mensinger – no darling of the Left – even voted publicly against the change, noting that Pulido had worked with Costa Mesa on local issues at AQMD – including the recent battle over fire rings on the coast.

Lalloway argues the move is not only deadly for air quality – he keeps asking me wryly what is “business-friendly” air regulation – but notes this kind of move in California is also toxic for his political party’s future in the state.

I’ve already seen how Robinson votes and it isn’t pretty.

Back in 2012, Robinson was catapulted into office with the support of a developer-funded $50,000 independent mail campaign that harshly attacked other local Republicans who were opposed to zoning changes.

Robinson got into office. And when it came time to vote to study the impacts of rezoning an abandoned auto mall in a commercial corridor into a small condo development, Robinson said such studies – costing $12,000 – were too much.

Robinson voted to rezone without the studies.

“I ran as a business-friendly businessman, and that’s the way I’m going to go,” Robinson declared.

There’s the new governing philosophy for your air quality board, a business-friendly businessman.

Is there any doubt which way Robinson will go when it comes to the delicate balancing act between our air quality and business profits?

I’m old enough to remember what Southern California’s smog looked like in the 1970s (indoor recess was real fun). I’ve seen what sensible regulation can do by looking out my window each morning. I’m not excited to go back.

  • 6eaie2

    Will SoCal air quality be like every other commodity, i.e., “made in China?”

    Our regional Metropolitan Planning Organization agency, SCAG, predicts 4 million more people will live from Ventura County south (excluding SD) by 2040. Regionally, we drive 446 million miles by car every day. For OC, alone, OCTA predicts a population increase of 400,000, adding 1.4 million more avg daily car trips, and increasing the 30 minute commute to 80 minutes. By 2035, OCTA’s predictions mean OC residents will will spend nearly 3 hours of every day stuck in traffic. They won’t be spending time with their family. They won’t be helping kids with homework. They won’t be cooking wholesome meals. And thanks to the AQMD’s new business friendly leadership, they won’t be able to breathe, either. Paying for it all means taxpayers will lose money faster than our drought-stricken reservoirs lose water.

    How business friendly is that?

  • David Zenger

    CEQA adherence IS too expensive. But worse than that it’s mostly just a mammoth paper chase in which hand-chosen consultants make boatloads of cash as they help talk away real issues. At the County those consultants are some of the biggest campaign contributors.

    Politics trumps objective analysis every time as municipalities fall all over themselves to help developers dump “negative externalities” on the residents of their towns.

  • UnitedWeStand

    Oh yes, residents in Lake Forest are fed up with Mr. Robinson. Developer money has been a BIG issue. When we heard he was elected to AQMD, we thought a business in face masks would be profitable!!!. Mr. Robinson did not listen to the taxpayers when it came to correcting a badly designed road which was a safety hazard, until a petition was started to recall him and two other council members, Voigt and Hamilton. Now it is going to cost taxpayers more money to correct the problem. He is verbally abusive to fellow council members who do not agree with him and also rude to residents at city council meetings. In my opinion, he is a ticking bomb. I wouldn’t want my kids around him at Sunday school or anywhere else. I recognize businesses are important to our economy, but EVERYONE deserves equal and fair representation. If you want to see an example of “sandbox” politics, come to a Lake Forest city council meeting, but be prepared for a long night. It surprising anything gets done at all with all the antics!

  • Greg Diamond

    Can Robinson still be removed if the environmental proponents put up someone less ethically fraught than Pulido? And does the appointee have to be one of the people voting?

    Among the people who voted, Tita Smith of Orange and Christine Marick of Brea would seem reasonable if interested: both are smart, hard-working, have no ulterior motives here, and would seem uncontroversial.

    Normally, I would not propose such a move, but the concerns you raise about conflict of interest suggest that such an action might be appropriate. And if Marick were chosen, it would not even upset the partisan balance, as she is an NPP.

    Tait may like Robinson, but he’s still sensitive to appearances of impropriety. (And to my knowledge, he’s not hostile to the environment.) Pulido would presumably go along — and with the two largest OC cities casting their disproportionate votes, that’s a big head start towards the better result.