Money Talks, Feces Disappears

Did politicians put tourism money ahead of public health in HB?

Photo by Keith MaySid Garcia—a reporter for Channel 7, the ABC affiliate in Los Angeles—stood with the Huntington Beach shoreline as his backdrop for the evening news the day before the Labor Day holiday began. Thanks to massive amounts of hazardous bacteria floating in the waters for at least eight weeks, the beach was nearly empty as Garcia prepared for his live report.

His news hook: earlier in the day, embattled county health officials had reopened all but a small section of the beach, a move that delighted Huntington Beach merchants eager for huge holiday crowds.

After explaining to his TV audience that the city had reduced parking fees to lure wary tourists, Garcia morphed into little more than a slick public-relations flack. "It's a great deal: $1 parking!" said an overly animated, smiling Garcia, who was standing—safely—about 100 yards from the controversial crashing surf. "Go ahead! Get back in the water."

Garcia was, of course, mimicking the chipper chorus of the Huntington Beach Chamber of Commerce, an organization so environmentally sensitive that it has pushed for more oil drilling off the coast of Southern California. Nor was Garcia alone in echoing the chamber line. An Orange County Register sports columnist pooh-poohed environmental worries and recommended fishing in the polluted waters. Few if any in the town really seemed to care whether visitors enjoyed a safe swim in the ocean. They trumpeted the "get back in the water" slogan, but what they really seemed eager to say was, "Spend your tourist dollars here."

Not everyone shunned such vulgarity, however. Mayor Peter Green, who started his political career with some environmental credibility only to warm with each re-election to Surf City's corporate interests, whined that beach closures "could be devastating for merchants." He worried that the beach closings would hurt city-parking and sales-tax revenues. There was excited talk of seeking federal financial disaster aid for business owners, but much less was said about the nasty health effects innocent surfers and swimmers suffer from ocean-dumped sewage and other infectious runoff: diarrhea, vomiting, stomachaches, nausea, pink eye, headache, high fever and hepatitis.

With Labor Day approaching, Green assured potential visitors that officials would not rest until they located and shut down the source of the "mysterious" bacteria that was harming the town's "image as one of the cleanest, safest beaches in California." He spoke excitedly of a possible national advertising campaign to bring customers to the businesses, but—revealingly—not of a campaign against one of the major causes of rapidly increasing ocean pollution: overdevelopment by the corporate community. Once the holiday had begun and it was clear that the long weekend would be a bust for local businesses, Green quietly backtracked on his promise, saying that the city might not investigate the health problem further.

The flip-flop was just fine with the chamber crowd. "The damage has already been done," said one Huntington Beach shop owner who was angry that health considerations had, at least before Labor Day, overridden worries about private profit margins.

Some officials didn't bother to hide their contempt for local government officials monitoring the bacteria leaks. A spokeswoman for Congressman Dana Rohrabacher noted that her boss viewed "public safety [as] absolutely the first concern"—even though Rohrabacher had slammed the scientists and health experts who had closed unsafe beaches, claiming they did not have a public "mandate."

But Rohrabacher's attack would pale in comparison to that of his political protégé. State Assemblyman Scott Baugh, who last year earned high marks for reconsidering the logic behind the Three Strikes law, elbowed his way through the crowd to become the chamber's most aggressive mouthpiece during the Labor Day crisis. After the obligatory nod to his "deep" concern for public health, the Huntington Beach Republican and graduate of Jerry Falwell's Liberty University posed as a microbiologist while advancing the corporate line.

"The water is clean," Baugh complained to reporters. "But the beaches are closed, and the merchants are hurting."

He advocated state legislation that would allow city politicians to overturn the decisions by professional health experts hired by the county. John Hoskinson, a communications coordinator with the San Clemente-based Surfrider Foundation, said his organization did not view Baugh's suggested legislation as "a very smart idea."

"What disturbs us is how this issue has become a political issue, not a public-safety or scientific issue,"said Chris Evans, Surfrider's national director. "Ijust don't understand why politicians aren't concerned about public safety."

For all of its bitching, the business community got what it asked for: the reopening of the beach for tourists and shoppers. In announcing the reopening the day before Labor Day, county health officials—under intense lobbying pressure—claimed there had been a miraculous drop in the bacteria levels. Just as suddenly, there was no more talk of evidence that raw sewage had contributed to the bacteria outbreak. Instead, argued the chamber crowd, the cause was probably something far less disturbing to beachgoers: mere water runoff from a nearby construction site.

Huntington Beach deputy city administrator Richard Barnard, who admitted to lobbying county officials on behalf of the businesses, said he doubted the beach had been reopened "just because some merchants wanted it open." County officials agreed at the time, assuring the public that their "decisions have always been based on the science and the science only."

After the Labor Day holiday, county officials reluctantly confessed that they had lowered health standards for acceptable bacteria levels in order to reopen the beaches.

It's odd that Huntington Beach politicians and bureaucrats who have repeatedly pushed "zero tolerance" to any perceived community threat can't seem to muster the same enthusiasm to save their No. 1 asset, the beach. On fighting drugs, former Mayor and head of the Chamber of Commerce Haydee Tillotson has said it's important to keep "the pressure on the problem so it doesn't come back." On public drinking, the city has stolen a page from wide-eyed ax-toting prohibition-era teetotaler Carrie Nation; police here have arrested citizens as they sip beers at their front doors or in their back yards. The city practically becomes a police state on the Fourth of July, when police fire powerful water cannons at unarmed revelers, limit travel, and eagerly punish unresponsive citizens with clubs.

City Councilman Ralph Bauer, a chamber favorite, can explain the need for such tough action. "This is a family town," he said. "If thugs want to come to this town and act up, then they are going to have to pay the consequences."

In light of this most recent bacteria debacle, some might say the thugs are running the town. Even Sean Rios, a 16-year-old Huntington Beach surfer, managed to sift through the political bullshit. He told the Times Orange County, "It doesn't matter what [city officials] say. The water is always dirty. I'm only going in today because I'm already sick."

smoxley@ocweekly.com

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