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Machine Politics: Burke Crony Nate Holden about to Get a Payday?

GUEST WORDS--It’s open season on administrative agencies, people. Are you paying attention? 

The Coastal Commission’s longtime Executive Director just got fired. So did the highly respected Executive Officer of the local air pollution agency, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD). Big money business interests and political machines are making their moves. 

And now, taking advantage of the turmoil, an old-fashioned Los Angeles County political machine is trying to pay off one of its members with a seemingly insignificant job. But the job is not trivial, and the machine’s move threatens to undermine the integrity of decision making about the air we breathe. 

The Hearing Board at the SCAQMD is an administrative law panel (snore, snore). It has significant powers, though. It can grant temporary exemptions from the air district’s rules. It can overrule the district’s decisions about whether a business gets a permit to operate or how many pollution trading credits a factory must buy. And it can issue orders forcing polluters to shut down or comply with rules. You don’t hear about it much, but the Hearing Board has recently had the Exide lead smelter, the Porter Ranch gas leak, and ExxonMobil’s Torrance refinery on its docket. 

Despite the importance of the Hearing Board, the political machine thinks it can dole out a slot or two on the 5-member board as $50,000-a-year favors to whomever it pleases. The machine crony on the Hearing Board now is the board’s medical member, an old doctor who has said virtually nothing during hearings and often doesn’t seem to be following along. Hosting a fundraiser for one of the machine’s next generation apparently helped the doctor get the job. 

Now the machine thinks it can give one of its oldest members the Hearing Board seat currently occupied by David Holtzman. Holtzman is a highly-qualified, experienced air pollution health scientist and public interest attorney who has been on the Hearing Board for almost three years with no complaints.  

His career in public service has focused on making complex scientific issues understandable to the public. Perhaps most notably, he managed responses to public comments and document updates for California’s health risk assessment of diesel exhaust, the first official document at any level of government to label diesel exhaust particulate matter a cancer-causing substance. 

Holtzman’s volunteer work includes time on a neighborhood council, a short stint with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, and two terms as President of the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles (the first male president there), championing progressive electoral reforms and civic education. 

Bill Burke, the patriarch of one of the machine’s families, is currently chair of the SCAQMD’s Governing Board, which appoints the Hearing Board’s members. With all the recent turmoil, Burke may not be chairing the board much longer. And his longtime friend, the patriarch of another family in the machine, could use a job. And Burke thinks he can get away with booting David Holtzman from the usually-obscure Hearing Board to install his crony, Nate Holden. 

Yes, Nate Holden. The long-ago LA City Councilmember whose legal troubles from sexual harassment charges cost the City over one million dollars, and who got illegal campaign contributions from the private business known as the LA Marathon and controlled by Bill Burke. The machine lives on. Holden and Burke each have a kid in the state legislature. 

The ties between Holden and Burke make Holden uniquely unqualified to serve on the Hearing Board. Every case the Hearing Board hears has SCAQMD on one side, so the Hearing Board must be independent of the SCAQMD’s leadership. 

The Holden and Burke political families are entwined through monetary contributions, political endorsements, and close friendship. An administrative law judge, however, must be independent, beyond a reasonable doubt of the judge’s agency, because the agency is a party in every case before the judge. 

People say integrity and impartiality are incompatible with Nate Holden.  

The appointment vote is scheduled for early on Friday, May 6. You may want to communicate your feelings ASAP about the replacing a qualified judge like David Holtzman with a old-time politician like Nate Holden. So write to the AQMD’s clerk of the board at cob@aqmd.gov and its new executive officer Wayne Nastri at wnastri@aqmd.gov. (Contact information for individual SCAQMD Governing Board members is here.)  

Administrative agencies are important. It’s good that you’re paying attention.

 

(Lauren Steiner is a grassroots activist and organizer who has worked with Progressive Democrats of Los Angeles, the California Clean Money Campaign, the Occupy movement, Food and Water Watch, Hunger Action LA, the LA Food Policy Council and many other groups. Currently she is the lead organizer of Los Angeles for Bernie Sanders trying to get him elected and advance the political revolution he is calling for.)

-cw