“So far the leak seems to be a minor annoyance in the area, said Sean O’Rourke, a member of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council Board of Directors.”
-Los Angeles Daily News
While the natural gas leak in Porter Ranch, California is now starting to get national news coverage, the problem existed long before the networks turned their cameras on the issue. In fact, an informational picket line staged by Save Porter Ranch was held in front of Castlebay Lane Charter School as the students arrived dressed in costumes for their Halloween festivities. At that time residents complained about a delay in an acknowledgment of the problem by the Southern California Gas Company and a lack of attentiveness by local politicians. For example, an affected stakeholder complained that a message left with Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich’s office was returned by a utility official. Another said that City Councilman Mitch Englander had blocked her from his Twitter feed after she had posted about the leak. As late as the November 18th meeting of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council, Englander’s representative was reporting that the leak posed no significant health risks. Little did he know that this talking point would be wiped away the next day by Los Angeles County health officials.
On November 19th it was finally acknowledged that the residents who had been complaining for weeks were not hypochondriacs and “that noxious fumes from a gas well above Porter Ranch are causing a health threat”. As a result, the County Health Department ordered the utility “to offer free temporary relocation assistance to any impacted residents.” The Gas Company which had first denied the existence of a leak to residents and then denied that conditions posed danger, told the Daily News that prior to the order they “had received five or six calls from the Porter Ranch area. [They had] offered relocation, and...no one [had] accepted the offer”. As of this writing, “2,258 household have been placed in temporary housing and an additional 3,168 are in the placement process.”
The Health Department’s action seems to have resulted in a change in how the area’s elected officials are reacting to the crisis. Antonovich finally concluded that “the residents...have suffered” and authored an emergency declaration that was passed over a month and a half after the start of the leak. Englander, the chairman of Public Safety Committee, also finally recognized “the mass relocation of residents, short-term health effects experienced and the poor air quality in the vicinity of the gas leak”. He also stated that “it is imperative that the governor step in and declare a local emergency so this community can receive the resources it needs.”
The residents of Porter Ranch were forced to wait a few more weeks for Governor Jerry Brown to declare that emergency. While the Gas Company site spewed greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, Brown traveled to Paris to take a stand against global warming. A trip from Sacramento to the leaking well in Porter Ranch was postponed until this week - over two months after the crisis began. However, in all fairness to the governor, there is a good chance that his sister provided him updates on the situation over the holidays. Afterall, her paid position as a board member of Sempra Energy, which own Southern California Gas Co., should give her access to plenty of information about the leak.
While in Porter Ranch, the governor did not bother to meet with the thousands of affected constituents. Instead he met privately with some members of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council (PRNC) in a meeting that was not accessible to the public. In fact the Council failed to even give proper notice of the meeting. This violation of California’s open meeting laws is particularly concerning to those who feel that the Council has ignored resident’s health concerns in favor of an attempt to stabilize falling property values. It is easy to understand if those who allege that their opinions have been deleted from the Council’s Facebook page may feel that their concerns cannot be adequately expressed to the governor by someone who has publicly described the leak as a “minor annoyance.”
This is not the first time that the PRNC has been caught breaking the rules to support the status quo. On May 19, 2014, these elected officials falsely stated on their facebook page that the “State of California has created a formula that will reduce [a local school’s] overall budget by 90%” and organized a community meeting. When confronted with the error, the President stated that the “goal was to get the concerned community to this meeting to find out the real facts and complexities behind the issue and look for solutions and options.” Unfortunately, false facts continued to be propagated at the meeting when one of the council members asked how the school was supposed to operate on a budget of $26,000 a year. The school’s actual budget was $5,215,042.
During the LAUSD’s 2015 School Board election, the Porter Ranch and Valley View Neighborhood Councils both invited the sitting School Board Member to speak at their meetings without including any of her opponents. This violated the rule that states neighborhood councils are not to be used to “take sides in election contests or bestow an unfair advantage on one or several competing factions.” As a result, one of her opponents, Filiberto Gonzalez, filed a complaint with the City Ethics Commission.
While the citizens of Porter Ranch do not have the ability to match the monetary influence of the Gas Company on local politicians, only they hold the power of the vote. In June, Englander is running to replace Antonovich on the Board of Supervisors and he should have to answer for his actions during the entire time table of the crisis, not just from when the media became interested. Additionally, Neighborhood Council elections are being held in the Porter Ranch and Northridge areas on April 9. If you are a stakeholder, you can register to vote, or run for a seat, on the Empower LA website.