Mark Griffon—the third member on the short-handed board—tried to table the unexpected motion in order to at least give him more time to read it (it had not been announced in any public documents). With no one to second the motion, Griffon was outvoted and quickly saw his share of power in the agency drop.
The "California coup," as one observer called it, scrubs a number of reforms meant to balance power between the chairman and other board members, such as requirements that the chairman consult on hiring decisions, designations to the Senior Executive Service, and expenditures over $50,000.
"It looks like a takeover of the agency," said Bill Wright, a former board member whose term expired in 2011. "Early on, the agency had some really rough roads because we were fighting over authority, but we tried to balance that. "¦ You're basically now handing it over to one person."
In introducing his motion, Ehrlich, who has more than five decades of industry experience, said he was concerned about "clarification and in some cases solidification" of agency management. "I have never worked in an organization where there is not a clear delineation of responsibility for implementation of administrative tasks."
In a later statement to National Journal, Ehrlich pushed back on the notion that the motion was meant to benefit Moure-Eraso, saying that since his term ends in June, it will have "minimal impact on his work."
"Furthermore, it takes from the shoulders of the board members the responsibility of dealing with such administrative issues as approving payments for copy machines, mandatory payments to the other agencies and ministerial functions and allows them to concentrate on the mission of the agency," he said.
But some staff members don't see the motion as simple housecleaning, saying it consolidates power with Moure-Eraso and two top officials, general counsel Richard Loeb and managing director Daniel Horowitz. Last summer, member Beth Rosenberg quit after just a year because she felt ignored, and staff members have told National Journal that the agency is a toxic environment.
The timing is another issue. A fourth member—Richard Engler—was confirmed by the Senate at the same time as Ehrlich and Engler, but has yet to join the board, meaning a delay could have meant a 2-2 tie. A fifth nominee, Kristen Kulinowski, was nominated by the White House last month, but has yet to see a Senate hearing.
The Ehrlich order also ended investigations into a pair of accidents at the Silver Eagle refinery in Utah, releases of hydrofluoric acid from the CITGO Corpus Christi refinery that began in 2009, and a 2010 zinc fire at a Horsehead facility in Pennsylvania.
The board had issued technical reports and recommendations in the Silver Eagle and CITGO cases, while the Horsehead facility in question has closed. Ehrlich said in California that there was "no realistic opportunity" for a more comprehensive agency report. The agency currently has six investigations listed as open and its investigative backlog has long been a sore point.