Ex-Lawmaker Named to Head Consumer Affairs Department

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Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has named as head of the state consumer affairs department a former assemblywoman who fared poorly on an advocacy group’s scorecard that rated lawmakers by their dedication to consumer interests.

Charlene Zettel, 56, will lead an agency that fields about 80,000 complaints a year and regulates 230 professions — from cosmetology to auto repair. The job opened up in early December, when the governor ousted an appointee of former Gov. Gray Davis.

Zettel spent 20 years as a dental hygienist and served in the Assembly from 1998 to 2002, at one point heading the Republican Caucus. Since leaving the Legislature she has worked as a director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco and a member of the San Diego Regional Airport Authority. Zettel is from Poway in San Diego County.

In a prepared statement, the governor portrayed Zettel as a strong pick.

“Charlene’s dedication to the people of California through her years of public service, combined with her professional experience as a state licensee and business owner make her exceptionally qualified to lead this important department,” Schwarzenegger said.

Consumer groups said Zettel was a poor choice to head a department whose mission is to protect consumers from fraud and corrupt business practices. In her stint in the Legislature representing the San Diego area, Zettel was seldom a reliable voice for consumer protection, advocates said.

“She hasn’t really distinguished herself in any positive way here in consumer issues,” said Richard Holober, executive director of the nonprofit Consumer Federation of California. “But we want to work with her.”

The governor’s office said Zettel would not be available for comment. In a prepared statement released by the governor’s press office, Zettel said: “I look forward to working with Gov. Schwarzenegger to maintain the highest standards for all goods and services provided in the state.”

From 2000 to 2002, the federation put out an annual scorecard evaluating lawmakers on the basis of 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.

She was docked points for votes against measures strengthening auto lemon laws and protecting corporate whistle-blowers, among others, according to the federation.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re Republican or a Democrat appointed to that position, the obligation of the Department of Consumer Affairs is to protect consumers. And if you have no record of that and, indeed, a record that is antagonistic to consumer rights, then you don’t belong in that post,” said Doug Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

State Sen. Dede Alpert (D-San Diego) wrote a letter to the governor urging that he give the job to Zettel. She defended the nomination.

“I’m going to believe the governor chose her because he believes she would be a strong consumer advocate,” Alpert said. “There probably are people who are stronger consumer advocates, but she’s fair-minded and a good listener. And consumer groups can feel comfortable that their voice will be heard.”

Last month the governor ousted Patrick Dorais, head of the state bureau that oversees the auto repair industry and a regulator who was respected by consumer groups. Zettel will play a role in naming Dorais’s successor.
Times staff writer Marc Lifsher contributed to this report.

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