Consumer Activists Troubled by Gov.’s Firings

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Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO — For the third time since taking office last fall, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has ousted a high-ranking state consumer regulator, stirring complaints among advocates that he is stripping a respected consumer protection department of its strongest voices.

Activists are mobilizing to block Senate confirmation of the governor’s pick to fill the top job at the Consumer Affairs department — former Assemblywoman Charlene Zettel, who scored poorly on a consumer advocacy group’s rating of lawmakers.

“You wonder if there’s not an agenda here of pleasing business at the expense of the public,” said Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, who is taking part in the effort to oppose Zettel’s confirmation.

Lynn Morris lost her job as chief of the state Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation on April 30, and no permanent replacement has been named. She helped craft a first-in-the-nation standard to make mattresses less likely to catch fire. When she was dismissed, she was preparing her staff to enforce the new regulations, due to take effect Jan. 1.

Earlier in his term, the governor dumped Kathleen Hamilton as head of the Department of Consumer Affairs and one of her deputies, Patrick Dorais, chief of the bureau that regulates the auto repair industry.

Hamilton and Dorais had played a role in the department’s high-profile investigation of Irvine-based Caliber Collision Centers. The department submitted its findings to state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, who sued Caliber for $50 million last year, charging that it had defrauded customers by billing for services and parts that were not provided. The suit is pending.

Schwarzenegger aides said that the dismissals were part of an effort to fill the agency with the governor’s own team and that the state intended to enforce consumer protection laws aggressively.

The administration “is committed to being a strong advocate for consumers,” said Fred Aguiar, the Schwarzenegger Cabinet secretary who oversees the state’s consumer protection efforts.

Said Zettel: “Our mission is the same. We want to continue to be a guardian of the consumers’ health, safety and economic well-being. We’re looking forward to continuing to implement the will of the Legislature in all existing laws.”

Morris had worked in various state consumer protection posts for much of the last 26 years — under Republican and Democratic governors — and was seen by some as a seasoned and dispassionate defender of consumer rights.

“I’ve known her work for over 20 years, and she is an outstanding person who served in many administrations. And it would be a shame if we have politics coming into government enforcement at the state level the way we have at the federal level,” said Harry Snyder, former director of the San Francisco office of the Consumers Union. “She just does her job protecting consumers.”

Hamilton said she worried that Schwarzenegger was ousting the people making strides in protecting consumers and leaving in place the people whose work was not showing the same results.

“It is notable that the individuals that the governor has asked to step down seem to be those who were particularly engaged in vigorous and significant consumer protection initiatives. There does not seem to be as much interest in replacing those who have taken a less proactive approach to consumer protection and regulation.”

Morris headed the home furnishings bureau for about a year and half. After Schwarzenegger took office, Morris said, there was a change in approach: a call to put off the aggressive regulation that she preferred. Aguiar countered that he wanted to move cautiously because there were compelling legal and bureaucratic reasons to wait before adopting new consumer standards. Morris said Aguiar told her that she should move to the “back burner” the development of a separate set of regulations for quilts, pillowcases and mattress pads — all of which could contribute to a bedroom fire.

She said the overall message she got was to “slow down” and be more “cautious” in imposing consumer regulations and to look for industry to meet bureau goals through voluntary compliance.

As a Republican governor, Schwarzenegger has cast himself as a salesman pitching a business-friendly California to chief executives and entrepreneurs. But he also describes himself as a populist defender of the average Californian. When it comes to consumer protection, those roles can sometimes collide.

“He believes that by rebalancing the equation and making the state more business-friendly, California will become more robust economically and the train will move once gain,” said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University. “The question is, as this rebalancing occurs, how many people does the train run over?”

As head of the bureau, Morris developed regulations aimed at ensuring that mattresses exposed to candles or lighters weren’t consumed quickly by fire. No other state has as tough a standard; federal regulations addressing the potential hazard aren’t yet complete. Regulations already exist to protect mattresses against smoldering cigarettes.

“I was disappointed,” Morris said. “Because of my consumer background and, frankly, the tradition of the Department of Consumer Affairs, I wanted as quickly as possible to move forward with consumer-protection regulations. Our mandate, literally, is that we promote the interests of the consumer first.”

In tests conducted by the bureau, Morris said, a petroleum-based mattress “we normally find in our homes right now … was engulfed” in three minutes when exposed to an open flame. In contrast, she said, “when we took a mattress that meets the new standard, made with new products, it did some charring, but in 30 minutes the whole mattress did not ignite.”

She said Schwarzenegger’s commitment to the regulations would be shown in who was chosen to replace her and how long the administration waited before naming a successor.

“Any law, no matter how good it is, is only effective in how it’s implemented and enforced,” Morris said.

Aguiar said Morris was dismissed because it is the governor’s right to choose his own people. He said that recruiting and interviewing was underway for a variety of posts, and that he hoped to fill vacancies within three months.

Though Morris is gone, he said, the bureau would “move forward” with enforcement of mattress-safety regulations.

Asked about Morris’ contention that she was told to delay regulations governing other bed products, Aguiar said he didn’t want the state to proceed with new regulations only to be shut down because the federal government was drafting rules that would take precedence.

For now, it is Zettel’s job to balance consumer and industry interests. Her confirmation is shaping up to be a fight.

“The governor shouldn’t be appointing as a top consumer regulator a legislator with no record of consumer protection,” said Jamie Court of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

From 2000 to 2002, the Consumer Federation of California produced a scorecard evaluating lawmakers on their support for consumer issues. Of a possible 100%, Zettel scored 11% in 2000, 17% in 2001 and 24% in 2002, according to the federation.

In an interview, Zettel said she had represented a conservative district in the Assembly and was bound to cast votes consistent with its interests. Now, she said, “my district is the state of California. It is people from every walk of life.”

Consumer Watchdog
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