Wednesday, April 23, 2008 | In 1985, Steve Francis, then the majority leader of the Nevada Assembly, co-sponsored legislation that offers insight into his environmental track record.

Francis, serving the second of two terms in the Assembly, joined other Republicans to push a bill that would have eliminated the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, a joint California-Nevada commission charged with the stewardship of Lake Tahoe.

Today, the bi-state agency has a $12.3 million budget and touts a lengthy list of environmental initiatives it has financed around the lake: Restoring hundreds of acres of wetlands, protecting more than 3,000 acres of sensitive land and revegetating dozens of miles of dirt roads in area forests. Environmentalists hail it as Lake Tahoe’s savior.

Voting to eliminate the agency “would be the right Republican vote,” said Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at University of Nevada, Reno. “It’d be the wrong environmental vote.”

As Francis ramps up his campaign to unseat San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, he is increasingly touting the stands he would take on behalf of the environment. On Monday, he urged the developers of Kensington Terrace, a mix of offices, stores and apartments, to shrink or stop the project, which was granted an exemption from city height limits.

“For too long in San Diego, the process has been backwards — the developers dictate what is done to the environment,” he said in a news release. “When I’m mayor, the needs of the environment will dictate the nature of the development.” The sentiment continued Tuesday, when he called for a halt to the Regents Road Bridge project, which would be built across Rose Canyon in La Jolla.

But while in Nevada, he put property rights ahead of land conservation efforts.

Today, Francis cites the environment as a central pillar of his campaign. But it has never before been a part of his political résumé. He did not cite it as a significant concern during his 2005 campaign, when he campaigned as a staunch conservative. But some insight about the mayoral hopeful’s environmental record can be found in his voting record while he served in the Nevada Assembly from 1983 to 1986.

Environmentalists praised some of Francis’ votes. In 1985, he supported a failed resolution stating Nevada’s opposition to federal plans to store nuclear waste there, an issue that several activists cited as an important environmental stand. In the 1970s, Nevada politicians had welcomed the waste repository at Yucca Mountain. “For him to be part of a movement to erase that was a good thing,” said Bob Fulkerson, executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

Francis points to his efforts to remove a large fuel storage site from Las Vegas as evidence of his environmental credentials. But Francis’ attempt to eliminate the Lake Tahoe stewardship agency loomed over Nevada environmental activists’ assessment of him.

Fulkerson, a lifelong Nevada resident, said an elected official could not claim to care about the environment and attempt to abolish the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. “They are mutually exclusive,” he said.

Fulkerson and other activists said the agency has been vital to protecting the lake. If it had been eliminated, “that would have been very detrimental to Lake Tahoe,” Fulkerson said. “Only the more extreme elected people ever go that far. That is a litmus test issue on environmental credentials.”

Francis stands by his vote to eliminate the bi-state agency, which he said was viewed in Nevada as an attempt by Californians to restrict Nevadans’ property rights. Francis said the agency had told some property owners they could not build homes on their land and would not compensate them for the lost right. “I didn’t think that was fair,” he said. “It was an abuse of power 23 years ago. The agency may have changed, it may be an agency doing good things, but things change. It’s hard to say the agency is the same thing as it was 23 years ago.”

If Francis isn’t remembered as a green-minded politician during his time in office, he’s not alone. Nevada’s elected officials in the 1980s were not known for environmentally friendly initiatives, several activists said.

“He was certainly not one of the leaders of the environmental community,” said Glenn Miller, a longtime Sierra Club activist in Nevada. “There wasn’t anyone in the legislature who’d give a second thought to the environment in the 1980s.”

While Francis now touts his concern for the environment, his positions do not echo those advocated by many environmentalists. He blames previous mayors for not improving sewage treatment at the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant. It dumps treated sewage into the Pacific Ocean without removing as much waste as is required by the federal Clean Water Act. But if elected, Francis said he would not pursue an upgrade, which could cost more than $1 billion. “As we go into an economic downtown, we want to avoid creating higher water bills,” he said.

At the same time, initiatives to address climate change feature prominently in Francis’ agenda. He promises to adopt green building standards, add hybrids to the city fleet and work to make the city carbon neutral.

Environmentalists are clearly intrigued by Francis’ promises. Marco Gonzalez, an attorney who has represented local environmental groups, said he’s optimistic that Francis could offer an alternative to Sanders, but said he found it hard to support someone with Francis’ “conservative mojo.”

“Anybody who campaigns on promises of good environmental deeds, it’s hard to believe a little bit. I’ll stay hopeful, but I’m not willing to throw my full support behind someone with an untested track record,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t think anyone would be so fooled to think that Steve Francis is a male version of Donna Frye.”

Some political observers see Francis taking direction not from any deep-held environmental beliefs but from polls showing people are concerned about those issues.

“The man is a chameleon,” said Glen Sparrow, professor emeritus at San Diego State University. “I don’t know in four years how he has changed so radically. It’s evident to me that he’s willing to take positions that the people of San Diego want to hear him take. He’s a product of his polls, not of any values. And I don’t think that’s being lost on people.”

Francis, though, points to his environmental record established as chairman of AMN Healthcare, the traveling nurse company he founded. He said the company adopted an “aggressive” recycling program, adopted a beach in Del Mar and significantly reduced paper consumption. Francis could not say by how much.

“I think when people look at my record,” he said, “they should look at the thing I’m most known for — the building of that organization.”

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