The Air Quality Management District's (AQMD) heavy-handed approach of ceremoniously banning fire rings in Huntington Beach (and across Southern California) without providing any specific evidence certainly seems suspicious and even underhanded. But until I attended the "public consultation hearing" Thursday, I had no idea just how bad this all is.
Held at the AQMD offices in Diamond Bar (no, it doesn't seem like they will be coming to Huntington Beach to hear your concerns about the ban), several dozen people representing our city, from residents to Chamber of Commerce personnel to Marketing and Visitor's Bureau members, were in attendance to voice their views. On the HB side it was 100% against this draconian ban.
A handful of Newport Beach residents showed up, the majority of which wanted the bans. Don't forget, it's Newport that started all of this when several beachfront residents decided that they couldn't be bothered any longer by fire rings. But as much as Newport bares that blame, they needed a partner in crime and the AQMD seems to have become the perfect parasitic host.
As Gail Holland just wrote in the Los Angeles Times, ("Fire ring opponents are blowing smoke") "The district staff cites the health of coastal residents and visitors exposed to fine-particulate pollutants. But those pollutants can come from many sources. What's really going on, it seems to me and others, is that a small contingent of wealthy residents don't want other people running around what they think of as their front yards."
I agree, Ms. Holland. This is about wealth, not health.
When I went to the microphone to address the nine-person AQMD panel, most of the salient points in this argument had already been made by previous speakers. HB city spokeswoman Laurie Frymire and Brian Ketterer, a park ranger and Orange Coast district superintendent along with many others were eloquent and firm as they sliced and diced the AQMD's power grab and clearly laid out how this would hurt the city. Ketterer in particular was majestic. Had this been a boxing match, the refs probably would've stepped in after he spoke.
My interest in addressing the panel was more about getting information and putting them on the record. It concerns me intensely how AQMD is looking to alter Southern California culture without having presented any evidence about why they are doing so. So I asked the man chairing the session, Assistant Deputy Executive Officer Laki Tisopulos, if AQMD has done original data research in Huntington Beach to validate their call for a ban.
Earlier in the meeting, Roy Englebrecht from Newport Beach, also against the ban, told the room how he had actually rented the equipment needed to test what particulate matter was like in Newport and Corona Del Mar. It was very compelling. His scientific findings? Once you are a couple of hundred feet away from the fires, health threats become "nominal."
So for the record, I asked Tisopulos point blank, like Englebrecht, have you done specific data research in Huntington Beach, in advance of calling for this ban and would he share it soon? He fumbled a bit but then said, "Yes." I asked him to repeat it for the video record, with everyone in the room as a witness. And he did.
Moments later I stepped outside the hearing to take a phone call. In the lobby of the building I saw Barry Wallerstein, AQMD executive director who left our meeting early claiming he had another, which several of us felt odd. Do they not get how important this is to HB?
Anyway, I approached him with a question. Given how sudden and sweeping this imposed ban is, has AQMD done specific research in Huntington Beach to justify this ban? "No," he said.
I asked; how can you move ahead on a ban without doing any research? "We plan on doing it in Huntington Beach, but we haven't yet" he said. But with no evidence, what prompted the ban in the first place, I wondered? "We'd read some things that interested us," he said.
Then I told him that just minutes before; his co-chair said the exact opposite, on the record, for everyone to hear. And Wallerstein got one of those nervous looks that bureaucrats get when hit with an off-script fact. "Well, uhm, I'll have to talk to him about that." Then he hurried away.
There you have it folks. One of them evidently claims one thing on the record and another one says they've done absolutely nothing specific in Huntington Beach in terms of data collection. Get your stories straight, guys.
Another bizarre highlight was that literally after every single person spoke, regardless of what points they made, they were asked a question by the chair: "So how would you feel about propane?" Most people were puzzled by the question. There was no context, and it was so vague, how was one supposed to answer intelligently?
That said, the concept of people having to bring propane tanks to the beach and running propane gas lines along the sand, I would think even to a child, sounded patently absurd and utterly irresponsible. These are people concerned with public safety? At one point someone said, "Why are you proposing propane?" The chair answered, "We're not proposing it, we're just asking a question about it." Right. About two dozen times in a row.
The danger, the liability issues, the expense, the impracticality — yet after every single speech: "So how would you feel about propane?" It became unintentionally comical, and before even being asked, several speakers offered their (primarily critical) views on propane in advance of the question they knew was coming.
As most pointed out, it seemed ridiculous, and how could they form answers when the AQMD offered nothing beyond the question? No costs, no specifics — no nothing. Yet how did their spokesmen spin it? From the Los Angeles Times: "But the idea received nearly unanimous support from fire ring backers who spoke at a public meeting Thursday, the (AQMD) spokesman added." That is an outright misrepresentation. Pure propaganda.
Some other things to infuriate you. Huntington Beach city officials were never informed of this fire pit ban by the AQMD. They found out after a call from the Newport City Manager asking if they would co-support the ban. Would AQMD have ever told us? But here's perhaps the worst. 89.3 KPCC recently quoted AQMB Governing Board Chairman William Burke as saying, he's "100 percent certain" that the AQMD will lift its exemption on beach bonfires when it meets in May. Got that? Game over. Fix is in. 100% guaranteed by the governing board chairman (who also sits on the Coastal Commission).
So is all this public posturing just a total and outright sham?
Forget banning bonfires. How about an investigation into the business practices of AQMD, whose chairman makes public claims like this?
Lies, secrecy, and a public admission that the goose is already cooked. What more do you need to get involved with this?
I was on KABC radio speaking about this with Doug McIntyre and I think he has it right. "We've had too much experience with these fascistic, totalitarian boards that nobody votes on — and they are the judge jury and executioner."
But it doesn't mean we can't fight. May 3, voting day, is the moment of reckoning for the city — and the rest of Southern California. We will need you there, by the thousands. They want to redefine culture and trash our economy? Let them tell a mob, face to face. Not slip it under the door in the middle of the night.
Just be prepared to answer the question, "So how would you feel about propane?"
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 19 books, including the new "Baseball in Orange County," from Arcadia Publishing. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at http://www.facebook.com/hbindependent.