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Guv, lawmakers crafting shake-up in homeland security, emergency services

A California security czar responsible for handling floods, fires, quakes and terrorist attacks would be a cabinet-level official with law-enforcement power, answerable directly to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, under a deal that the governor is helping to negotiate.

Behind the scenes, there is a struggle for primacy: Who will run the new, high-profile office?

“It causes great anxiety among emergency-response professionals when there is no concise, crisp chain of command,” said Assemblyman Pedro Nava. “It’s a very simple question that was asked during the Little Hoover Commission hearings: ‘Who’s in charge?’ This sets up a single chain of command.

“The administration is working closely with my office. There has been a collaborative effort all the way through this for the last year and a half,” added Nava, who heads the Legislature’s joint committee on security and emergency services. Nava is the author of AB 38, which merges the state’s Office of Homeland Security with the Office of Emergency Services. It is at least the third major shake-up of the state bureaucracy engineered by the governor and lawmakers since 2004–the other two involved the prison system and the state health bureaucracy. It follows recommendations by the Legislative Analysts Office and the Little Hoover Commission, who both said that OHS and OES have overlapping authority that confuses local disaster fighters.

The 40-page bill, rewritten on March 8 after lengthy negotiations, would create a new entity called the state Department of Emergency Services and Homeland Security, headed by a secretary appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. There would also be an undersecretary, who would not require Senate confirmation. The staffs of the two offices would be merged and job functions would be defined by the new secretary.

On paper, it is an uneven marriage.

The OES has 500 employees, a roughly $200 million annual budget, owns fire engines and emergency equipment throughout the state, and distributes disaster preparedness and other grants. When the grants, mostly federal pass-through money, are factored in, OES’ annual spending exceeds $1 billion. OES Director Henry Renteria served as the city of Oakland’s OES prior to coming to the state in 2004.

OHS, created by executive order in 2002 by former Gov. Gray Davis, has about five-dozen full-time employees, headed by Matthew Bettenhausen, a former White House homeland security official. OHS distributes some $300 million annually in federal anti-terrorism money to California and is the key conveyor of homeland security funds to the state. Currently, OHS is part of OES and its budget is included in the OES’ spending plan. Before joining the federal Homeland Security office in 2003, Bettenhausen served as a special counsel and deputy governor in Illinois. Like Renteria, he reports directly to the governor.

Under the newly proposed reorganization, only one person would report to the governor on emergency and security issues. Will that be Renteria or Bettenhausen–or will it be someone brought in from the outside? Of little import to the public, the question has become the talk of California’s inner political sanctum.

Publicly, nobody is willing to say. Privately, Capitol sources familiar with both agencies believe that Bettenhausen, by virtue of his political, finance and legal experience, has the inside track. Too, Bettenhausen knows the inner workings of the intricate federal homeland security apparatus, which could prove critical in California’s quest for funding.

“Ideally, what we are looking for is someone at the cabinet level who is familiar enough with the operations of both the federal government and the state’s emergency-response system, someone who would be respected and have integrity,” Nava said.

One sticking point is whether, and to what degree, any new Department of Emergency Services and Homeland Security will have law-enforcement authority, including access to criminal intelligence and access to confidential law-enforcement records. Nava’s bill, as written in the Assembly, says flatly that the new entity will be considered “a law-enforcement agency” with full access to criminal histories.

This is all but certain to spark controversy, especially in the Senate, where an attempt to vest law-enforcement powers in OHS was beaten back earlier, when legislation authored by Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, was rejected after it was hijacked and transformed into entirely different legislation.

“My understanding is that there are real law-enforcement personnel at [state] Homeland Security, but they must have some access to sensitive information to do their job. But there’s no access to criminal intelligence. They don’t have guns and they are sort of a go-between the feds and the locals,” said a Capitol staffer who is familiar with the potential merger.

The governor’s office, the OES and OHS did not discuss the bill with Capitol Weekly.

But the issue of expanded police authority will be at the core of the debate over combining the two agencies. The bill must be heard by the Governmental Organization committees in both houses. In the Assembly that may not be a problem, but in the Senate the G.O. Committee is headed by Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, a maverick Democrat with little compunction about poking holes in the administration and little taste for expanding police powers.

Contact John Howard at
john.howard@capitolweekly.net


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