Democrats regain majority at South Coast Air Quality Management District
From left, Riverside County supervisors Marion Ashley and V. Manuel Perez (File photos).
The agency responsible for protecting and improving air quality for 16.8 million Southern Californians will have a Democratic majority after a Republican Riverside County supervisor stepped down from the agency’s board and a Democratic colleague took his place.
The change at the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s Governing Board comes more than two years after a GOP majority fired the district’s executive officer and pursued policies that Republicans saw as more business-friendly.
The 13-member board – 10 elected officials from Southern California cities and counties, plus three appointees from the governor, Assembly speaker and the state Senate Rules Committee – oversees an agency charged with fighting air pollution in a 10,743-square-mile region encompassing urban portions of Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties, and all of Orange County.
Over the past two years, the board’s leadership has been either deadlocked in terms of party representation or controlled by the GOP.
That changed this week. On Tuesday, Aug. 28, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors voted 5 -0 to name Democrat Supervisor V. Manuel Perez to represent Riverside County, replacing Supervisor Marion Ashley, a Republican who is retiring.
“Unfortunately, I feel it’s time I should step down,” Ashley, who leaves elected office in early January, told his colleagues. “I’ve had some health issues in the past … I think it’s time to pass the baton to someone else.”
Perez will take over next month and is slated to hold the seat until January 2022.
With Ashley, who joined the air management district in 2016 — the same year he served as a Donald Trump delegate at the Republican National Convention — the governing board had six Republicans and six Democrats. The appointment of Perez gives the Democrats a 7-5 majority, plus an unaffiliated member.
While the air district’s leadership is officially nonpartisan, partisan politics seemed to become a factor in 2016, when elected officials in Orange County ousted Santa Ana Mayor and Democrat Miguel Pulido and installed Republican Lake Forest Councilman Dwight Robinson.
That gave the governing board a 7-6 GOP majority, an oddity in a deep-blue state. In March 2016, the Republican-controlled board voted on partisan lines to fire longtime Executive Officer Barry Wallerstein, who faced criticism from business and environmental groups, but had a reputation for advocating tougher air-pollution rules in a region notorious for smog.
Public health advocates were upset by Wallerstein’s ouster and then-state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, sponsored legislation to add three state-appointed “environmental justice” members representing low-income communities to the district board. That bill fell short in the Legislature.
Republican control of the board ended in January 2017, when Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, a Democrat, was sworn in, replacing now-former Republican Supervisor Michael Antonovich. Another Democrat, Supervisor Hilda Solis, now serves as L.A. County’s representative.
Ashley’s departure from the governing board brings focus to the complicated nature of representing a county with some of the worst smog in the nation on a powerful air-quality agency.
Riverside County has five supervisors, including three current members who will serve past 2019.
Ashley said that traditionally, the county sends someone from its eastern half, and someone from the western end, to the air quality governing board. Because Wildomar Mayor Ben Benoit represents western Riverside County on the board, that meant Ashley or Perez, a supervisor since 2017 who represents the Coachella Valley, was the choice, Ashley said.
When Ashley’s supervisor term expires in January, his replacement will be former GOP assemblyman Russ Bogh or Calimesa Mayor Jeff Hewitt, a Libertarian. But Ashley, who was hospitalized in December, said serving on the governing board is a stressful, time-consuming job, one he wanted to take off his plate in the interest of personal health.
“No one has the background and the interest” like Perez to serve on the governing board, Ashley said Wednesday. “He has the fire in the belly and he wants to do the job.”
Supervisor Kevin Jeffries, a former Republican assemblyman, also supported Perez’s appointment.
“Unfortunately for Southern California, that district has become very partisan in nature,” Jeffries said Tuesday. “And it really does a disservice to all of us, across the state, when it takes on partisan politics versus science and good business (and) good decisions that benefit all the residents.”
“I have confidence that Supervisor Perez is going to rise above the partisanship.”
Perez was traveling and could not be reached for comment Wednesday. His spokesman, Darin Schemmer, said Perez “appreciates his colleagues’ confidence in him that he will make decisions to improve air quality, health and the quality of life in the best interests of Riverside County residents.”
Ashley praised the district for “doing a wonderful job trying to clean up the air and help our quality of life against very formidable obstacles. They’re trying to do it in a fair, nonpartisan way.”
Politics, he said Wednesday, were not a factor in appointing Perez.
“We’re trying to (get) the best person for the job,” he said. “Sure, some people are concerned about that. Everyone who serves on the (governing) board, everyone is united. They’re all trying to clean up the air and at the same time, balance that with the jobs and economic cost of that. Rarely does it get down to where it’s a purely political vote.”
Robinson, the Lake Forest councilman, said he was sorry to see Ashley go, but looks forward to working with Perez.
“My focus, and what I’ve seen many of my colleagues focus on, is the balance between improving the environment and air quality while trying to make sure we’re retaining jobs that are still vital to living in and enjoying Southern California,” Robinson said.
“I’m sure at times, we might be on different ends of votes. But I think the vast majority of the time, we’re going to be on the exact same side and I look forward to working with him.”
Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson, a Republican and governing board member, said the board’s partisan makeup is “insignificant to me.”
“Most of the stuff we do is overwhelming voted on by the group. Not everything obviously,” he said. “I don’t run into the party dynamic there. I think others bring it up.”
Wallerstein said Wednesday that Riverside County typically sends quality representatives to the governing board, and that he expects Perez will match that tradition.
“Clean air shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” Wallerstein said.
Penny Newman, founder of the Jurupa Valley-based Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, said she was impressed with Perez’s appointment.
“I hope this is a signal that we’re going to get over all this partisan bickering and start doing what its right for these communities” afflicted by air pollution, said Newman, who ran for supervisor earlier this year.
Adrian Martinez, a Los Angeles-based attorney with the environmental group Earthjustice, said it’s important the governing board have a member from the area that Perez represents. “I think we just want board members (who) are going to roll up their sleeves and dig in to solving this air pollution crisis that we have in the Los Angeles and Inland Valley region.”
Inland economist John Husing said it’s wrong to view the governing board through a partisan lens.
The real split, he said, is between the elected officials on the board and the L.A. County supervisors and state appointees, who threaten “to destroy upward mobility to the middle class” by taking a harsh regulatory approach to the logistics industry.
“I see no fundamental change” with Perez’s appointment, Husing said.