Fourteen months after James Lents was forced out as executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the agency is nowhere near deciding his replacement.

The 12-member board remains deadlocked over a slate of four candidates two insiders and two outsiders each of whom has been asked back for another round of interviews. The board has tentatively scheduled a final vote for Nov. 13, although there are no indications that the deadlock will be broken by that time.

The post has been vacant since August 1997, when Lents failed to get the necessary seven votes to extend his contract. Lents had come under fire from business groups for cracking down too harshly on business and from environmentalists for not standing up to a board determined to ease emissions rules on business.

Agency observers say the stalemate over a replacement has been caused by deep divisions on the board, plus the lack of a strong candidate.

"I don't think there is any clear candidate emerging to run the agency," said Ed Laird, chairman of the Small Business Coalition that lobbies the AQMD on behalf of small businesses. "It's going to take a strong person at the helm to continue to downsize the agency and to get support from the different factions now pulling the board apart. No candidate seems to be able to satisfy all these things right now."

The leading candidate, acting Executive Officer Barry Wallerstein, was initially unable to muster the seven votes necessary to win a majority of votes on the board last fall. Neither could the other AQMD staff member who threw his hat in the ring, Assistant Deputy Executive Officer Jack Broadbent, whose current responsibilities involve clamping down on emissions from small factories and businesses.

At that point, the board hired Century City-based executive search firm Norman Roberts & Associates to come up with a wider field of candidates. Last spring, the firm came back with a list of 10 candidates. After a round of interviews, the board reduced that pool to four: Wallerstein, Broadbent and two outsiders.

The two outsiders are reportedly Crawford Tuttle, a deputy secretary at the California Environmental Protection Agency, and Richard Baldwin, air pollution control officer with the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District. Neither Tuttle nor Baldwin returned phone calls to confirm they are candidates, and AQMD officials declined to comment.

The board held a round of interviews in August, but was unable to reach a decision and has asked the candidates to return by the end of October.

But no sign of consensus seems to be emerging.

"There are a lot of divisions on the board," said Peter Whittingham, aide to AQMD board member and L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich. "You've got some who want more environmental regulation, while others want less. You've also got an east-west split, with the four representatives from the Inland Empire concerned about emissions from L.A. and Orange County drifting over their territory. And you've got a faction that wants more emphasis on environmental justice issues," he said, referring to the movement to reduce pollution in poor, largely minority neighborhoods.

Another complicating factor is the Nov. 3 election. Two board members L.A. City Councilman Richard Alarcon and Pomona City Councilwoman Nell Soto are running for higher office and would leave the board if they win.

Another board member, Paul Woodruff, a former state assemblyman from Redlands, was recently named to the board by Gov. Pete Wilson, but his term will expire in January unless he is confirmed by the state Senate. In that event, it would be up to the next governor to name a replacement.

"In four months' time, a quarter of the board could be changed," Whittingham said. "Some board members may want to hold out to see what happens in the aftermath of the elections."

Opinion is mixed on whether all this is having a significant impact on the agency.

Some, like Laird, say the AQMD has drifted. "Barry (Wallerstein) has had a chance to run the district. But most of the staff is in chaos and there isn't any clear direction that the agency is going in," Laird said. "There are a lot of problems with the regulated community (businesses regulated by the AQMD) and there is mounting criticism from the environmental community."

Last summer, just before Lents was forced out, a coalition of environmental groups filed suit against the AQMD, charging that the agency has been lax in drafting and enforcing clean-air standards.

"Conditions have not changed that much since we filed the suit," said Tim Carmichael, policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air, a Westwood-based environmental group. "The agency still has not done much to enact tough smog-reducing rules."

But Carmichael would not say that the agency is taking too long to find a replacement for Lents. "This is an important position and it is essential that the right person be chosen," he said.

Whittingham, the Antonovich aide, said AQMD staff is functioning adequately without a permanent executive officer. "Wallerstein has shepherded through major rules on coatings and solvents and he has also put more emphasis on permit streamlining," he said. "I would not characterize that as drifting."

Carmichael countered by characterizing AQMD rules imposed since Lents' departure as "largely technical tweaks of existing rules."

However, the AQMD staff is preparing to unveil a major new set of rules regulating toxic air contaminants by December. Both business groups and environmentalists are gearing up for a fight over those proposed rules.

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