Governor removes term limits from SoCal air-board chairman

For William Burke, the third time was the charm.

Burke, the founder of the L.A. Marathon and the husband of Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Burke, has been given a gift coveted by many California politicians: an exemption from term-limits. He serves as chairman of the powerful South Coast Air Quality Management District and his chairmanship was scheduled to end by next year.

Earlier bills carried by Burke’s supporters in the Legislature to remove the term limits were blocked after news reports disclosed that Burke sought to make an end-run around the mandatory cutoff after two consecutive terms.

But a final bill, SB 886 by Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod, D-San Bernardino, was approved by the Legislature following negotiations that resulted in changes to the bill, including the addition of another board member that supporters said would give smaller communities more clout in their air-quality struggles with Los Angeles. The bill also removed the term-limits ban on the chairperson of Sacramento’s air-quality district. In the end, the bill was approved, then signed into law this month by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The votes were mostly–but not entirely–along partisan lines, with Republicans opposing the proposal and Democrats in favor. But Democratic Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, opposed the bill, while Republican Sen. Roy Ashburn, D-Bakersfield, voted in favor.

Two earlier bills, one by former Assemblyman Simon Salinas, D-Salinas, and another by former Assemblyman Joe Baca Jr., D-San Bernardino, also called for exempting Burke from the term limits. Both involved bills that were hijacked and heavily amended, and both were rejected after news reports surfaced about the attempts to remove the term limits. Legislation pushed by former Sen. Kevin Murray, D-Culver City, a political ally of Burke’s, also was rejected.
Negrete McLeod’s bill was rewritten and shunted between numerous committees. On the Senate side it was heard twice by Rules and Local Government before emerging from the Senate May 24 in a 22-13 vote.

The SCAQMD is the sponsor of the bill and supporters include the cities of El Segundo and Manhattan Beach, and the Mojave and Sacramento air-pollution-control districts. Opponents include the Clean Air Coalition, an environmental group, and Orange County, which opposed adding a 13th-member to the district board.
Without the change in the law, Burke would have been forced to give up the chairmanship this year.

Earlier in the year, the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District hailed the removal of the Burke provision from Salinas’ bill.

In the final version that went to the governor, which included the Burke provision, the Sacramento district was listed in support, along with the California Contract Cities Association, the cities of El Segundo and Manhattan Beach and the SCAQMD, among others.

Salinas’ bill, which originally dealt with routine expense-reimbursement issues, received little interest in the Capitol and appeared destined for quick approval. It was approved 80-0 in the Assembly.

Under current law, the chairperson of the SCAQMD can serve a maximum of two consecutive two-year terms. Burke has served as chairman several times since he was appointed to the board in 1993–from August 1997 to December 1999, from January 2000 to December 2001, and from January through December in 2003. He was elected chairman in January 2004, a term that ends this year.

Burke also is a member of the California Coastal Commission and served on the Air Resources Board. He withdrew from consideration for an appointment to another powerful panel, the commission that governs the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, after a legal opinion raised questions about potential conflicts stemming from his sitting on both the DWP and the SCAQMD board at the same time.

He earlier sought the chairmanship of the CCC, but was blocked after the governor and the leaders of the Senate and Assembly–who together appoint the Commission’s members–moved behind the scenes to block the move.

Burke, a political ally of L.A. City Council member and former Assembly speaker Herb Wesson, is a significant and controversial political figure in Los Angeles. The founder of the L.A. Marathon, Burke’s political allies include Sen. Murray, the powerful head of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Earlier, Richard Katz, a member of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, questioned the wisdom of removing term limits for the SCAQMD chairperson only.
“If you are going to eliminate term limits, it should be across the board, as opposed to one office or the other. It should be for all people in similar positions on boards and commissions,” said Katz, a former Assembly member.

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