Repost from The Vallejo Times-Herald
[Editor: It's sad that some would try to silence Mayor Patterson since she has carefully avoided coming out publicly or privately against Valero's project. The good news here (lemons to lemonade) ... the City Attorney’s challenge, once denied, should open the door to EVERY Council member to speak more freely in addressing important issues outside of Council chambers and prior to decisive votes. More public debate on the part of all on the Council and various Commissions, boards and committees will be good for Benicia. - RS]
Benicia: Mayor Elizabeth Patterson asked to recuse herself from Valero crude-by-rail decision
Elizabeth Patterson rejects city’s advice, hires attorney
By Tony Burchyns, 10/13/2014
BENICIA>>Mayor Elizabeth Patterson is claiming that the city is trying to muzzle her on public policy questions related to plans to increase crude oil train deliveries to the Valero refinery.
Patterson revealed to the Times-Herald the city attorney has advised her not to participate “in any way in any city decisions” relating to Valero’s pending permit decision. Patterson also said the city has asked her to refrain from sending out “e-alerts” about the project and related crude-by-rail issues and to not engage in public discussion of the matter.
“I feel the city is trying to muzzle me on my questions and alerting the public on major public policy issues of crude-by-rail, fossil fuels, public safety and environmental air, water and habitat hazards,” Patterson said in an email. She said she has rejected the city’s advice and hired a lawyer to defend herself against what she views as an attack on her free speech rights.
City Attorney Heather Mc Laughlin declined to comment the matter, citing attorney-client privilege. However, Mc Laughlin said a handful of community and City Council members had raised conflict-of-interest concerns about Patterson’s engagement in the public discussion of the controversial project. She wouldn’t say which council members raised concerns.
Council members Alan Schwartzman, Mark Hughes, Christina Strawbridge and Tom Campbell declined to comment.
Valero is seeking permits to build a rail terminal to receive up to 1.4 million gallons of crude oil daily by train. The city is in the process of responding to dozens of comment letters on the initial environmental impact report from residents and state and local agencies.
Patterson, who has served on the City Council since 2003 and as Benicia’s elected mayor since 2007, regularly communicates with residents on a wide variety of issues. In particular, she sends periodic “e-alerts” to people who have asked to be on her email list.
This year, several of those communications have included information regarding the city’s review of Valero’s pending land-use application as well as discussions of public policy issues raised by the proposed increase in oil train traffic.
In March, Patterson – a retired state environmental scientist working part-time on the California Water Plan – wrote a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed encouraging Gov. Jerry Brown to issue an executive order to ensure the state is prepared to deal with “highly flammable and explosive Bakken crude oil from North Dakota coming by rail and water into California.”
In June, she testified with other officials at a legislative oversight hearing in Sacramento about state and local agencies’ preparedness to respond to oil train accidents like last year’s explosive derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people. She didn’t comment at the hearing on the merits of Valero’s project.
In a letter to the city, Patterson’s attorney Diane Fishburn defended the mayor’s right to communicate with her constituents and participate in the public discussion. Patterson disclosed the June 26 letter in response to a recent Times-Herald inquiry about thousands of dollars in legal expenses on her latest campaign finance report.
“The law fully supports the mayor’s complete participation in both the public community discussions and her activities in her role as mayor as well as in any decisions which may come before the council on the project,” Fisburn wrote. She cited a 1975 state Supreme Court ruling that held that the public statements of two Fairfield City Council members opposing a proposed shopping center did not serve to disqualify them from participating in the city’s decision on the project.
“These topics are matters of concern to the civic-minded people of the community, who will naturally exchange views and opinions concerning the desirability of the shopping center with each other and with their elected representatives,” the court wrote at the time. “A councilman has not only a right but an obligation to discuss issues of vital concern with his constituents and to state his views of public importance.”
In that 1975 decision, the court also quoted a 1958 New Jersey Supreme Court ruling that stated “it would be contrary to the basic principles of a free society to disqualify from service in the popular assembly those who had made pre-election commitments of policy on issues involved in the performance of their sworn … duties.”
Fishburn argued Patterson has not made public statements or indicated a specific position on the pending project. “However, even if she had expressed views on the pending Valero permit, it is clear based on (related case law) that this wouldn’t disqualify her from participating in the on-going proceedings and in future City Council decisions in the matter,” Fisburn wrote.