Key medical official resigns from Air Quality Agency

It seems there’s no lack of public-health crises these days, and even the most energetic social reformer must decide which battles to fight. So Alan McKenzie will be turning his attention from the local campaign to clean up the air pollution jeopardizing area residents’ health to the national struggle to make medical care more accessible to all citizens. At the Jan. 13 board meeting of the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency, McKenzie announced his resignation from the five-member regulatory board, effective Feb. 20.

McKenzie, the executive director of the Buncombe County Medical Society, assured the board that “air quality remains a priority area for action by the Medical Society. [But] we have a number of pressing issues facing the medical community that require my focused attention.” These, he said, include “our rising cost of health insurance — the physicians want to get much more actively engaged on health and [controlling] costs locally, and working with businesses to achieve that goal.”

Moreover, noted McKenzie, Buncombe County’s acclaimed Project Access has sparked an avalanche of requests for help from communities around the country that want to replicate the system of free, physician-donated health care for low-income patients that McKenzie helped establish here.

“We’re trying to develop a whole new national organization, called the American Project Access Network, to provide consulting services and guidance to those communities,” he told Mountain Xpress.

The fight for the fund balance

Another of McKenzie’s innovative administrative ideas, however, has suffered an unexpectedly troubled history since he first proposed it as a solution to a crisis that threatened the air agency’s existence less than a year after his 1999 appointment to the board. When Haywood County’s sudden resignation from the regional agency forced its formal dissolution, the old agency’s nearly $1 million fund balance (derived from fines and permit fees) was suddenly up for grabs.

Not surprisingly, the suddenly orphaned pot of gold quickly attracted political attention, and the question of who gets the money became entangled with the larger one of who enforces air-quality regulations in the area.

Into this fray stepped McKenzie, however, with an ingenious proposal: Divert the fund balance into a Clean Air Community Trust Fund, kept administratively separate from the air agency, that would provide grants for educational and technological projects to help clean up WNC’s air pollution. All sides signed onto the idea, and with the seduction of the swollen fund balance safely out of the way, the air agency was shortly reconstituted as an independent regulatory entity.

But the trust fund itself was promptly hobbled by a no-less-ingenious lawsuit filed by conservative activist Betty Donoho and attorney Albert Sneed (later joined by Buncombe County School District). They contended that a little-noticed clause in North Carolina’s constitution requires that regulatory fines and fees must be turned over to local public schools. Under McKenzie’s leadership as chairman and afterward, the air board fought the lawsuit through two-and-a-half years’ worth of court battles, while the trust fund limped along on $5,000 donated by the Medical Society.

Now, however, after recently losing on appeal, the board has decided to settle the Donoho lawsuit (according to unofficial reports) — a step one local clean-air activist thinks the group should have taken at the outset.

“We waited too long to get this trust fund going,” observes Hazel Fobes, director of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air and a longtime air-agency watchdog. Had the board been willing to compromise with Donoho and Sneed early on, she believes, the Clean Air Trust Fund might now be playing a powerful role in WNC’s push to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s mandate to clean up ozone pollution in time to avoid being branded a “nonattainment area.”

Nonetheless, Fobes praises McKenzie’s role in focusing the attention of local regulators and citizens on air pollution’s threat to public health.

“Coming from the Medical Society, he was able to bring to [the agency] information they couldn’t have gotten otherwise.”

The Buncombe County commissioners will now have to solicit nominations for someone to serve out the remainder of McKenzie’s term (which runs until 2006). At press time, no timetable for naming a replacement had been announced.

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