Public ire continues over supervisor's comment about tuning out air activists

June 19, 2009 

More than 100 marchers gathered in Fresno and Bakersfield on Thursday to demand the resignation of Merced County Supervisor Mike Nelson from a local air quality board.

The demonstrators launched their campaign because of remarks Nelson made last month during a San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District governing board meeting. Nelson, who serves as Merced County's representative to the air board, said he sometimes "tunes out" when environmental activists speak before the board because he thinks they don't tell the truth.

In another public meeting last year, Nelson called his assignment to the air board "a sentence" that he was stuck with because no other county supervisor would take the position.

About 90 marchers gathered outside the air district's Fresno office Thursday morning, where governing board members held a regularly scheduled meeting.

"Give Nelson the boot," the marchers called out.

A few dozen people demonstrated at the same time outside the district's Bakersfield office, including Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers.

Several of the marchers spoke before the air board during the meeting's public comment period. Daniela Simunovic, organizer for the legal watchdog Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, said Nelson should be formally censured and removed for his remarks.

"Our democracy depends on our public officials listening to us," she said. "The legitimacy of the the air district and of the board are on the line here."

Two people spoke in support of Nelson, including Merced County Planning Commissioner Jack Mobley.

Nelson said during the meeting that he did not mean to offend anyone but stopped short of apologizing to activists.

He said earlier this week that he has no plans to step down and that he stands by his argument that some environmental activists misstate facts when speaking before the air board.

Nelson also has said his comment was taken out of context; it was part of a larger statement about the importance of listening to all sides in the debate over how to best implement anti-pollution regulation, he told the Sun-Star on Monday.

According to transcripts from the May 21 meeting, Nelson said, "If we don't listen and work together, we won't get it. And that's good for me to remember, too. Because honestly when (some activists) get up here, I tend to tune out because ... I don't think they're telling the truth."

The air district's executive director, Seyed Sadredin, has defended Nelson. He said earlier this week that he doesn't believe Nelson should be removed.

That's only further angered activists. Several marchers from Merced said Nelson should not be in any political office.

Merced resident Melissa Kelly-Ortega, who helped organize Thursday's demonstration, said she and other activists already have taken their demand for Nelson's resignation to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. She said they also plan to take the matter up with the local Board of Supervisors.

"We won't stop until Mr. Nelson is removed," Kelly-Ortega said.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez, D-Shafter, has urged Nelson to consider leaving the air board and said in a recent letter to Nelson that his remarks have created "an unwarranted level of hostility."

Nelson was elected to his second four-year term on the Board of Supervisors in 2006. He's served as Merced County's representative to the air board since 2003.

Reporter Corinne Reilly can be reached at (209)385-2477 or creilly@mercedsun-star.com. Fresno Bee reporter Mark Grossi contributed to this story.