Restricting fire rings

Board Chairman William A. Burke, center, addresses members of the public during a meeting regarding a proposal that would restrict fire rings on Southland beaches. (KEVIN CHANG, Daily Pilot / July 12, 2013)

Several months ago, Air Quality Management District Chairman William Burke proclaimed that he was "100% positive" he would be able to ban all fire rings in Southern California. Clearly, he underestimated the power of a little place called Huntington Beach.

As we learned in a vote last Friday, the fire pits are staying right here where they belong. The fate of the pits in Newport and Corona del Mar remain up in the air, but that's their problem, not ours. As it now seems all but evident, this mess started down there not because of any real health issues, but the simple and despicable fact that certain wealthy beachfront owners want to control what types of people visit their beaches.

But all I know is we won. Was it a bit bittersweet that the entire AQMD proposal wasn't thrown in the trash where it belongs? Perhaps. Nevertheless, it was a monumental victory.

And just look at what we did in the process. We began exposing what would appear to be one of the most unscrupulous government agencies in the state, if not the entire country. We turned this into a national story and so now millions of people will associate the AQMD with this issue.

We created pressure that probably led to Burke's resignation from the Coastal Commission. We exposed his and board member Dennis Yates' preposterous words comparing Newport bonfires to Vietnam carpet bombing (to date, neither man has apologized to veterans). We exposed the apparent academic misrepresentations of board member Clark Parker.

Perhaps most importantly, we came together as a city. People of every political persuasion and economic level worked together to get this done. It was glorious.

And yes we saved the fire pits. Throughout this process, several AQMD employees have reached out to me. They are ashamed of their leaders, and with good reason. This issue was embarrassing on many levels, for our region, for our state but especially for the AQMD.

As one staffer expressed to me, quietly, after the meeting, "You have no idea how huge a victory this is. They planned on wiping all of the rings out, quickly and quietly. But your city stopped them and you should be very proud."

As for the meeting itself, to quote Dickens, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Hundreds of anti-ban supporters were there in force, along with many political leaders, including our own Mayor Connie Boardman, assemblyman Travis Allen, members of our City Council, other mayors, an assemblyman and even a senator. On the pro ban side were the same five or so people who have attended every meeting.

I have not reported this before, but several weeks ago an AQMD insider sent me a warning. Evidently, last week, the AQMD sent a photographer to Huntington Beach to photograph fire rings where illegal substances were being burned. They found not one.

My source warned me that the board members would still introduce pictures at the meeting to prove their point. And there they were, date stamped last March, before this issue was barely on the radar.

Burke was his usual strutting and arrogant self, but the person who stole the show in my opinion was board member Josie Gonzales. Her comments during deliberations had the entire packed room scratching their heads. In a rambling and unfocused address, she asked her executive director questions that even he didn't seem to understand.

To many of us it sounded as if she was hearing this issue for the first time. When she made it clear she would be voting for the ban, and crowd members shook their heads, she chided them, belligerently, for not knowing what they were doing. It was embarrassing, and I would highly suggest you watch the performance yourself when it is posted here aqmd.gov/aqmd/webcast/webcast_calendar.htm.

But perhaps I'm being too harsh. Maybe she has a tough time keeping track of things. After all, as it states in her AQMD bio, "Gonzales currently serves on 29 boards, committees and commissions." The AQMD includes that information without a trace of irony, as if it's a good thing. But it serves as another reminder of what happens when committee-addicted politicians have too much power.

Board member Judith Mitchell followed with a similarly uninformed speech. Other members didn't utter a word. And then it was left to board member and Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson to finally bring some sense into the room.

He, along with board member and Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido have been strong, clear and focused critics of the AQMD during this boondoggle, and Nelson on this day was brilliant. In the end, he, Pulido, Michael Antonovich, John Benoit, Ben Benoit and Jan Perry all voted against their own organization's recommendations. But they were one vote short.

Still, remember, their initial plan was to ban every single fire pit in Southern California. As it stands, Huntington Beach will lose just a few under the new regulations, but several of us are working to have those properly moved to fit the new distance measures so that we won't lose one of them. Thank you to Travis Allen for staying on this issue in Sacramento.

For now, Huntington Beach is free and clear. I asked when the AQMD monitors will be moved from the AES parking lot and was told it will happen in short order. Trust me, I will check every day to make sure that happens. That's the point of this, after all, I think. This is a bureaucracy that while monitoring everything else, clearly needs to be monitored itself. And so that's what we'll do.

Like many cinema monsters, it's easy to imagine the AQMD rising from the slime to take another swipe at us, just when you think you have won. Then again, after the public and private beating it has taken over this, I'm not sure the agency will be up for another Huntington Beach thrashing anytime in the near future. But just in case, I'll say it here: AQMD, we are ready for you.

Fire pits will burn long and strong in Huntington Beach, hopefully forever, because of the passion and commitment of so many of you. Thank you, one and all. We did it. We beat them.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 19 books, including the new "Baseball in Orange County," from Arcadia Publishing. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column athttp://www.facebook.com/hbindependent.