AQMD ed­its out video of clash

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Tony Bar­boza

South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s air qual­ity board took the un­usual step this month of edit­ing footage from an of­fi­cial we­b­cast that showed its chair­man con­fronting a pro­tester who had in­ter­rupted a pub­lic meet­ing.

The in­ci­dent took place about 30 min­utes into the South Coast Air Qual­ity Management Dis­trict’s June 2 board meet­ing, af­ter dozens of ac­tivists op­posed to a planned ex­pan­sion of oil com­pany Te­soro’s re­fin­ery be­gan chant­ing at agency of­fi­cials from the au­di­to­rium in Di­a­mond Bar.

An au­di­ence mem­ber live-streamed the fra­cas, a video of which re­mains posted on Face­book.

The dis­trict’s video doesn’t in­clude an ob­scen-

ity-laced ex­change in which board Chair­man Wil­liam A. Burke, who is African American, ap­proached and con­fronted a man in the au­di­ence who he be­lieved had threat­ened and cursed at him us­ing racially deroga­tory lan­guage.

Af­ter the dis­tur­bance, the panel re­treated to a pri­vate con­fer­ence room to con­duct the rest of the busi­ness on the agenda, with no mem­bers of the pub­lic al­lowed in­side.

AQMD spokesman Sam At­wood said state law per­mits of­fi­cials to ex­clude mem­bers of the pub­lic from meet­ings “any time there is a threat to se­cu­rity and safety” so long as jour­nal­ists are al­lowed to at­tend. No re­porters were present that day, he said. En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists staged the protest in re­ac­tion to AQMD Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer Wayne Nas­tri’s May 12 de­ci­sion to sign off on an en­vi­ron­men­tal re­view of Texas-based Te­soro’s plans to merge its Car­son and Wilm­ing­ton fa­cil­i­ties into the West Coast’s largest re­fin­ery.

En­vi­ron­men­tal groups say the project would pose health and safety risks to peo­ple in Wilm­ing­ton, Car­son and west Long Beach.

Dur­ing pub­lic tes­ti­mony on an un­re­lated item, Ali­cia Rivera, Wilm­ing­ton or­ga­nizer for Communities for a Better En­vi­ron­ment, crit­i­cized air qual­ity of­fi­cials for the de­ci­sion as a group of other ac­tivists joined her in chant­ing: “You wash your hands, you put all the power in one per­son’s hands” — re­fer­ring to Nas­tri.

That’s when the video posted online by the air dis­trict cuts out abruptly. The of­fi­cial video picks up af­ter the 13-mem­ber board re­con­vened in a pri­vate room. The agency typ­i­cally streams and posts video of all of its gov­ern­ing board meet­ings.

At­wood said “the footage that was not in­cluded was not part of the meet­ing, it was protesters protest­ing. The meet­ing at that point had been sus­pended.”

The unofficial video shows that the protest con­tin­ued for sev­eral min­utes with some board mem­bers re­main­ing at their seats as demonstrators yelled “shame on you,” “Burke for prison” and other chants.

Burke rose to his feet to ar­gue with one of the demonstrators and later ap­proached the au­di­ence, point­ing his fin­ger at a man, the video shows.

Rivera, who or­ga­nized the protest, said she grew con­cerned and tried to stop the uniden­ti­fied man, who she said was shout­ing louder than any­one in the au­di­to­rium and is not af­fil­i­ated with her group.

Peo­ple at the meet­ing said they heard the man use a deroga­tory term for African Amer­i­cans and that Burke re­sponded an ob­scen­ity.

Burke de­nied us­ing an ob­scen­ity. “I thought I heard a racial slur from one in­di­vid­ual and went down to ask the fel­low about it,” Burke wrote in an email to The Times. “He ran back yelling ob­scen­i­ties at me so I was never able to speak to him.”

Burke said in a sub­se­quent phone in­ter­view that the man ranted “about do­ing some­thing abu­sive to me” — though it was hard to make out — and re­ferred to him as “boy” and may have used other deroga­tory terms.

“If he would have done some­thing abu­sive to me I would have de­fended my­self, that’s for sure,” Burke said. “No one calls me boy.”

It’s not un­usual for Burke, the long­time chair­man of the air board, to en­gage in pro­longed dis­cus­sions with en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and other agency crit­ics from the dais dur­ing pub­lic hear­ings. He has served for more than two decades on the panel, which is re­spon­si­ble for clean­ing the air and pro­tect­ing pub­lic health across a four-county basin of 17 mil­lion peo­ple.

Burke said he would look into why video of the in­ci­dent was not posted, “but I’m sure what they’re go­ing to tell me is that it wasn’t part of the pub­lic pro­ceed­ing.”

Af­ter the con­fronta­tion, the board went into closed ses­sion and the au­di­to­rium emp­tied, At­wood said.

Later, when the board re­con­vened its pub­lic agenda in a con­fer­ence room, Rivera said she and oth­ers tried to at­tend but were barred en­try by se­cu­rity guards.

“I thought it was re­ally out­ra­geous,” Rivera said.

Cal­i­for­nia law allows bod­ies such as the air board to ad­journ to a pri­vate lo­ca­tion when peo­ple dis­rupt­ing the meet­ing can­not be re­moved, said Terry Francke, gen­eral coun­sel for Cal­i­for­ni­ans Aware, a non­profit that ad­vo­cates for open gov­ern­ment. But the lack of video pre­vents the pub­lic from know­ing “ex­actly what sort of ac­tiv­ity the board used to ad­journ the reg­u­lar meet­ing. It’s pos­si­ble that they didn’t do it right or that they never an­nounced the ad­journ­ment,” he said.

“The Brown Act does not au­tho­rize a closed ses­sion to deal with dis­rup­tive con­duct,” only to dis­cuss pend­ing lit­i­ga­tion, Francke added. With­out video, “the record sim­ply isn’t there to fig­ure that out.”

While behind closed doors, the air qual­ity board voted to award mil­lions in con­tracts to fund electric school buses and approved a $150-mil­lion an­nual budget.

Irfan Khan Los Angeles Times

WIL­LIAM A. BURKE is chair­man of the South­land’s air qual­ity board.

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