The governing board of the Southern California Air Quality Municipal District voted 7-6 to fire Barry Wallerstein, its executive officer since 1997, amid concerns from its new Republican majority that the agency needs to be more business friendly.
The board appointed Chief Financial Officer Michael B. O'Kelly as the agency’s acting executive officer, according to a press release. It will now start a comprehensive search for a permanent executive officer.
The Press Enterprise reported late Friday that in spite of Wallerstein’s efforts to push ahead with air pollution regulations to meet required federal health standards mandated by the Federal Clean Air Act, he faced criticism from business advocates.
Wallerstein also received backlash from environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, which sued the district over the amount of allowable pollution from power plants.
Questions about Wallerstein’s effectiveness also arose as the Southern California region has been struggling to meet the federal health standard for smog, and failed to meet the ozone standard during 83 days last year.
The region also missed a 2015 federal deadline to clean up diesel soot and other kinds of fine-particle pollution, associated with early death, heart disease, stroke and stunted-lung development in children.
The slim one-vote margin that sealed Wallerstein’s fate revealed he also had strong advocates among those who supported his efforts to prevent the dismantling of clean-air rules by those pushing for his dismissal.
“I'm extremely disappointed in the direction this board has taken under its new Republican majority,” said State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles. “This hostile takeover, led by Supervisor Antonovich, has subverted the will of the people and undone decades of hard work that has unquestionably benefited all of the region's residents.”
In light of the announced departure of Wallerstein, the Los Angeles County Business Federation (BizFed) recognized his many years of service to the district and air quality issues, but acknowledged the Governing Board’s decisions will stick moving forward.
“While strong staff leadership is always vital, the Governing Board sets policy, we wish Dr. Wallerstein well,” BizFed said in a statement. We look forward to a constructive relationship with the new interim executive officer and with whomever the Governing Board ultimately selects to head the agency.”
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