Capitol debate begins over merging homeland security, emergency services

With safeguards against terrorists and disasters capturing the public’s attention, California is faced with a vexing conundrum: What is the best way to secure the state?

One piece of this debate, the political piece involving the relationship between two state agencies, is being joined in the Capitol.

Ten days ago, Assemblyman Pedro Nava, the presumptive leader of the Legislature’s committee on emergency preparedness and security, proposed a tersely worded bill that would take California’s Office of Homeland Security and place it inside the Office of Emergency Services. Nava’s AB 38 would make OHS a division of OES. It is the culmination of at least two years of intense Capitol discussion about the chain of command in California’s ability to withstand a terrorist attack, and it reflects in part Nava’s experiences during the January of 2005 La Conchita mudslide disaster in his Santa Barbara-area district.

“They should only be together when there is a clearly defined line of authority so that there is no mystery as to who is accountable or responsible for whatever their job is,” Nava said. Nava, the vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Emergency Services and Homeland Security, is likely to take charge of the committee by the end of the year in a regularly scheduled leadership change. His bill is known as a “spot bill,” which means it will serve as a basis for the Legislature’s debate on the issue, but is all but certain to be rewritten as it wends through the Legislature’s committees. Whatever the decision on this bill, the bottom line is that terrorism protection is a discussion that will be on the table in 2007,” added one Capitol expert familiar with the issue.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration, in its 2005-06 budget, urged that the OHS be made a stand-alone agency, rooted in state statute and with a separate command chain that included some police powers, such as the right to issue search warrants and an exemption from the state’s Administrative Procedures Act. That drew a rebuke from the Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal analyst, Elizabeth Hill, who said lawmakers should reject the governor’s attempt to set up OHS through the budget bill, rather than through a policy bill that would entail public hearings and scrutiny.

Some Democrats, concerned that the administration apparently tried to sneak the proposal through by burying it deep in a budget trailer bill, heeded that advice: The attempt died, and the OHS hastily withdrew the plan.
OES, for its part, seeks cooperation with OHS. “What’s important is that there is a system in place right now for people to know that we can respond to major emergencies in California, and any way we can to make it better, we will look forward to working with all parties,” said Frank McCarton, OES’ chief deputy director.

OHS, too, favors a cooperative posture. “OES has always been and presumably will continue to be the lead state agency in terms of disaster response. Our No. 1 function at OHS is to work to prevent terrorism in the state of California, and we do that in a variety of ways. That has always been the case, and we don’t see that there is any confusion about that,” said OHS spokesman Chris Bertelli.
OHS is processing some $30 million a month in anti-terrorism related grants, Bertelli added.

Any plan to merge the two offices must be heard by the Governmental Organization committees. “I think Nava and others have recognized that Homeland Security was kind of carved out in state government without a lot of foresight,” noted Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, chairman of Senate GO.

The governor’s 2006-07 budget again proposes a stand-alone OHS, but so far that plan has not sparked much enthusiasm. Hill earlier had not taken a position on whether OHS should be a separate entity. But this year, her office recommended flatly that OHS should be part of OES. “The OHS and the OES have overlapping activities and need to work closely together. The OHS should be established as a division within OES.” She also said lawmakers need to define OHS’ duties and write them into a statute–something that Davis’ executive order did not do.
Capitol insiders say the administration is not pushing as hard as it once did for a separate or dominant OHS, nor is it seeking guidance from the federal DHS model, which has come under fire for flaws stemming from its handling of the Katrina flooding, Coast Guard vessel construction and other issues

One question in California is whether the OHS should be the top agency, with OES under it’s jurisdiction, similar to the huge federal DHS, which oversees such disparate agencies as the Coast Guard, drug fighters, the Secret Service, immigration services, customs, transportation security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“Most people don’t know it that OHS is not operational, but was created in order to accept federal dollars,” said Nava. “And I don’t think we would ever rely on the federal model as it relates to OES or OHS. The feds have mishandled their responsibilities.”

The OHS, headed by former federal security official Matt Bettenhausen, is a young agency formed nearly four years ago by an executive order of former Gov. Gray Davis. In the state’s flow chart, the office does not have its own budgeting but is financed through OES. The heads of both offices, however, report directly to the governor.

OHS takes the lead in getting federal security and anti-terrorism dollars to California, and its mission is to make sure that California is trained and prepared to prevent terrorist attacks, reduce the state’s vulnerability to terrorists and limit the losses of an attack, should it occur. It does this by screening and distributing federal grants to agencies that guard ports, transportation centers, energy hubs, communications centers, urban grids, and dispensers of health care. It also supplies money for training and new equipment, and it educates emergency and law-enforcement personnel throughout California on the threats posed by terrorism. About $1 billion has come under its jurisdiction–roughly $300 million annually. The OHS, with about 50 employees, is based at 12th and K streets in Sacramento, less than two blocks from the Capitol. Although small in size, it is conduit for funding and, as such, it wields power across the state.

The OES, with about 500 employees and a $1 billion budget, is California’s traditional disaster fighter. It has equipment and personnel throughout California’s 58 counties. It responds to fires, floods, earthquakes and other disasters, both man-made and natural, and it has communications, command centers, personnel and equipment. It has fire engines, earth movers and satellite trucks. It handles disasters on the ground.

Some lawmakers and outside observers, including Hill’s office and the Little Hoover Commission, believe the lines of authority and the chain of command between the two agencies are blurred, even though by all accounts the highest executives at both entities work closely together. “It’s pretty clear and apparent that there is not enough coordination, not enough communication and not enough interaction,” said Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, D-Fremont, chairman of Assembly GO.

So just who exactly is in charge?

State auditors and legislative analyst have asked the question, and a new study on the agencies’ authority–and where the two overlap–is due by the end of the summer. Called a “gap analysis,” the study will look not only at OES and OHS, but also at the roles of dozens of state and local agencies that have some role in combating terrorism. But regardless of the findings of the gap analysis, defining OHS and OES in statute is something that is overdue, Nava believes.
“This kind of reorganization is something that should have been done some time ago,” said Nava.

“Like anything else in the Capitol, it all depends on the details and whether the governor also recognizes this problem and is willing to do something about it,” Florez added.

Contact John How
ard at

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