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State employee goes rogue at SLO County Air Pollution Control District meeting 

On June 17, during what was a routinely contentious discussion about the county’s Air Pollution Control District (APCD) enforcement of air quality standards at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreational Area (ODSVRA), Will Harris got up and walked to the podium during public comment.

“Hello, I’m Will Harris with the California Geological Survey,” Harris said. He’s a California Geological Survey (CGS) employee who works with the California Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), which manages the dunes. Harris critically disputed both the science and the policies adopted by the APCD as a means of controlling dust.

Specifically, Harris spoke about Rule 1001—which, passed by the APCD in 2011, sets performance standards and monitoring requirements for the DPR. The rule includes the possibility of a $1,000-per-day fine if the standards are exceeded.

Rule 1001 is contentious and continually the subject of litigation, which at one point pulled in the state Attorney General’s office. While the rule continues its argument-inducing ways, a once-combative relationship between the APCD and the DPR over the rule somewhat subsided.

Aeron Arlin-Genet, manager for planning, monitoring, and outreach at the APCD, told New Times that the agency entered a Consent Decree Agreement with state parks. That agreement sets a process for the two agencies to collaborate in meeting air quality standards and keep the matter out of the court system. Arlin-Genet said the process has been productive and was assisted by the DPR’s work to install several dust control measures at the ODSVRA, including the installation of wind fencing, hay bales, and native plant vegetation. 

“Our focus is not on [Rule 1001’s] fines; our focus is on reducing the particulate matter on the Nipomo Mesa,” said Arlin-Genet, referring to the residential area downwind from the dunes.

Still, the APCD hears no shortage of concerns from the public about its role at the dunes, making it a sometimes sore subject at meetings.

After Harris spoke at the June 17 meeting, APCD Chair and 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill asked Harris a series of questions, prompting the following exchange:

  • Hill: “Mr. Harris, can I ask on whose behalf are you speaking?”
  • Harris: “I’m speaking on behalf of myself.”
  • Hill: “And who employs you?”
  • Harris: “California State Geological Survey.”
  • Hill: “Who asked you to come here today?”
  • Harris: “Why would you ask?”
  • Hill: “Seems like a reasonable question if you are before this Board on behalf of the Geological Survey.”

Hill then asked Harris if he was at the meeting on his own time.

Harris responded, saying, “I’m not here on my own time, I’m here on state time.”

In response, 2nd District Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who sits on the APCD Board with all SLO County’s supervisors, wrote a letter to State Geologist John Parrish, head of the CGS, that detailed the exchange, the history of Rule 1001, and the reasons why Gibson considered Harris’ comments to be out of line.

“Mr. Harris disparaged the integrity of the district’s technical efforts and the competence of its Air Pollution Control Officer, Larry Allen,” Gibson wrote in the June 20 letter.

“The conflict of Mr. Harris’ personal and professional roles is evident in the latter part of the [meeting] transcript. Mr. Harris identifies himself as a CGS employee and proceeds to make aggressive personal comments, on state time, without the authorization of CGS or DPR.”

Gibson then writes that Harris owes the APCD and Allen “an apology for his grossly inappropriate commentary. I would also urge you to review Mr. Harris’ role in advising DPR to ensure that the public’s interest and health are protected.”

In a June 30 letter, Parrish responded to Gibson.

“I am quite troubled by what appears to have been a breach of professional conduct on the part of Mr. Will Harris,” Parrish wrote. “I believe that Mr. Harris has likely irreparably tarnished his abilities to conduct constructive discussions with scientific objectivity on this project, and CGS will be taking appropriate actions to heal our working relationships with DPR, the APCD, and the county of San Luis Obispo.”

The letter does not discuss whether the department is considering disciplinary measures toward Harris, nor does it indicate whether Harris will continue to work on dune-related matters. Harris declined to comment for this story. The CGS Public Relations Department couldn’t be reached for comment.

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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