New homeland security agency up and running

California’s new emergency office, designed to handle everything from floods to terrorist attacks, is five weeks old and appears to be operating smoothly. But one question about the bureaucratic shakeup lingers in the Capitol: Why did the governor give the cabinet-level chief a temporary job, rather than a permanent gig?

Gov. Schwarzenegger announced on Dec. 23 that he had named Office of Homeland Security Director Matthew Bettenhausen to be the acting secretary of the California Emergency Management Agency, or CalEMA, which merged the OHS with the Office of Emergency Services. The governor’s decision culminated years of debate about the responsibilities of the two offices and the need to establish a unified chain of command for California’s emergencies, both man made and natural.

In obtaining the new job, Bettenhausen beat out Henry Renteria, the director of the OES. Bettenhausen and Renteria vied for the new cabinet-level job created by the merger of the two agencies. The new position pays about $143,000 annually.

“He’s holding the acting title because we are currently doing a national search for the most qualified and talented choice for California,” said Rachel Cameron, a spokeswoman for the governor. She said the state is looking at a pool of top candidates “and Matt is part of that.” There was no indication how long the search would take or when the final choice would be announced. Bettenhausen, a former federal prosecutor and ranking official in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, served as the state OHS director since 2005.
But several Capitol staffers familiar with the state’s emergency services’ programs, are skeptical.

In part, that’s because there was no mention of a nationwide search – either in the governor’s official announcement or when the legislation was signed. Indeed, in December, the governor issued a laudatory statement about Bettenhausen and said he “looked forward to working with Matt in his new role in protecting our state…”

The governor has less than two years remaining on the job, and as time winds down it become harder to lure top people to take a temporary job that will end when the new governor takes office. There also is political uncertainty: The governor is a Republican but his chief of staff, among others, is a Democrat and the governor is closer to some Democrats than to those in his own party. Potential recruits, although familiar with the political world, may find California’s political landscape daunting.

Bettenhausen convened a major meeting this week of his staff from OHS and OES at the CalEMA headquarters in suburban Sacramento to discuss the new agency. Video and audio conferencing hookups linked the meeting to CalEMA offices around the state.

 “I would say it is the director’s first opportunity in person, or through video conferencing to talk to the CalEMA staff and work force and discuss the progress of the merger and his vision for the agency,” said CalEMA spokesman Jay Alan.

The two agencies merged as a result of legislation, AB 38, authored by Assemblyman Pedro Nava, D-Santa Barbara. Nava’s bill was prompted by his own experiences dealing with disasters in his local district, as well as by hearings and studies. Those included a critical report by the Legislative Analyst that said the state’s emergency chain-of-command was poorly defined – a complaint echoed by others, including emergency services personnel at the local levels.

Before the merger, OES had a workforce of about 600 people and spent about $1.45 billion annually, including about $400 million from the state’s General Fund. The agency backs up the locals in an emergency, provides equipment and personnel, helps with training and coordinates the state’s response to major disasters, natural and otherwise. OES equipment includes fire trucks, earth movers, satellite communications gear and OES personnel can be deployed statewide.

The OHS, formed by an executive order in 2005, is much smaller. Including employees under contract, it has a personnel level of about 140 or less. Despite its size, the office plays a critical role in the distribution of federal anti-terrorism, training and security grants to California law enforcement agencies.

Since the merger, the personnel strength has remained largely unchanged, although the state’s budget woes may ultimately force cuts in CalEMA as in other state agencies.

“Where there are ways to maximize the taxpayer dollars, those are being looked at – as they should be at all times, but especially at this time,” Alan said.

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