Dispiriting vote on Children’s Bill of Rights

June 5, 2013 

Our county’s Air Pollution Control District governing board last week refused to endorse the Children’s Bill of Rights, a benign document developed by a diverse group of stakeholders under the sponsorship of the county’s First 5 Commission.

The 6-5 vote came after one of the most strange and disappointing days I’ve experienced in my time in elected office.

For most boards, commissions or councils, this would qualify as a “no-brainer” — a heartfelt, if ceremonial, expression of commitment to care and advocate for the children of this county.

Amazingly, a majority of APCD board members could not muster the courage to stand against aggressive ideologues who showed up to decry this effort as a ploy to regulate — perhaps even a Trojan horse of Soviet-style social engineering. The split vote against our county’s children came after an hour of the most absurd rationalizing I’ve heard in some years.

That says a lot about what’s going on with a number of APCD board members. The APCD board is made up of all five county supervisors and a representative from each of the county’s seven cities.

First 5 (officially, the SLO County Children and Families Commission) has promoted the Children’s Bill of Rights as a means of articulating our aspirations and commitment to the interests of our children. The Children’s Bill of Rights was developed through meetings with nearly 200 adults and 60 youth. The final version is inspired by similar documents adopted by our county’s Board of Supervisors and elected bodies throughout California.

First 5, which has served SLO County since 1998, was established to distribute tobacco tax funds for the benefit of children from birth to 5 years old. The First 5 Board is non-partisan and committed to supporting the health and education of the youngest members of our community.

I’m proud to be the Board of Supervisors’ representative to the nine-member commission, following the long and distinguished service of my former colleague, current state Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian.

The ginned-up controversy about the Children’s Bill of Rights started when the acting APCD meeting chairwoman (and Atascadero City Council member) Roberta Fonzi unsuccessfully tried to pull the item from the agenda — because she found it “unnecessary,” and that it could lead to resolutions to “save the whales, (or) help the fuzzy bunnies and warm kittens.”

Public comments that followed reached even greater heights of hyperbole, illogic and absurdity:

• The completely symbolic Children’s Bill of Rights would pre-empt the Bill of Rights.

•The Children’s Bill of Rights would remove parental authority and constitute a “taking” — the latter concept a favorite canard of the Tea Party.

• Endorsement of the Children’s Bill of Rights might be used in Sacramento and Washington for “lobbying on behalf of children” — yes, that was voiced as a criticism.

Most ominously, several people asserted that the Children’s Bill of Rights was the first step toward our children being made “wards of the state.” One person even suggested that meant the APCD would assume parental duties (I’m not kidding), and others claimed the United Nations would usurp the role of parents.

These deliberately provocative, outrageous assertions came from many of the same folks who have taken to the public comment periods of various local elected bodies in recent months to sound the alarm of an impending U.N. takeover under the auspices of Agenda 21. They are inspired and abetted by our local Tea Party and COLAB — who rail indiscriminately against regulation in general and seek to tear down local government to the benefit of a few special interests.

The sad result last week was that six of the 11 APCD Board members present would not stand up to this nonsense, so they cast their “no” votes against the Children’s Bill of Rights in fealty to the extremists.

A common excuse for their political frailty was that such action was not within the APCD’s purview. Some expressed concerns that the Children’s Bill of Rights might be a “prelude to regulation.” What especially disappoints me is that Supervisors Arnold and Mecham voted “no,” while they had endorsed the Children’s Bill of Rights at the Board of Supervisors.

Consider, however, that the APCD exists specifically to protect the public’s health by reducing and eliminating air pollution. Study after study has shown that our children’s respiratory heath is especially vulnerable to unhealthy air.

In fact, the district has a special program in a few schools now (and hopefully more soon) that teaches students about health and air quality. The district also sends health alerts to schools on the Nipomo Mesa when airborne particulate matter reaches levels that suggest students’ outdoor activities should be modified or eliminated.

With this emphasis on the health of our young people, how can we not support the Children’s Bill of Rights?

But so it goes. It’s dispiriting to see elected officials unable to exercise their responsibility to advocate for vulnerable members of our community. It’s even more disappointing that fear of those with extreme and rigid ideologies lead those elected to deny a basic expression of hope for our children’s future.

Bruce Gibson represents District 2 on the county Board of Supervisors.

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