BREAKING: Benicia City Council votes to continue At-Large elections

By Roger Straw, January 22, 2020

4-1 vote: Young, Campbell, Largaespada and Patterson YES, Strawbridge NO

Late last night, Benicia resident Judi Sullivan reported:

“…For those who weren’t there or didn’t watch the vote, it was four to one to keep the ‘at large’ elections instead of switching to district ones mandated by the state for reasons not seen to apply to our population.
An additional caveat was added to this vote, which was to connect with other common cause cities in the state who have similar smaller populations and demographics which don’t fit the state’s mandated purpose for switching to district elections.
Public Comments were strongly in support of continuing with ‘at large’ elections.
City Council members Tom Campbell, Steve Young,  Lionel Largaespada and Mayor Elizabeth Patterson voted to uphold “at large” elections with Vice Mayor Christina Strawbridge voting against this choice.”

The video of January 21 Council meeting, including citizen comments, Council discussion and vote can be viewed on video at the City of Benicia website.  [This item begins at minute 24:30 of the video.]

    Citizen letters – At-Large elections are better for Benicia

    By Roger Straw, January 21, 2020

    On Tuesday January 21, Benicia’s City Council will consider a proposal to change our electoral process from At-Large voting for Council candidates to four newly-defined small geographical districts.

    Benicia citizens are writing letters in opposition and planning to attend at Council.  [7pm at City Hall TONIGHTAgenda and staff reports here]

    Here is a sample of recent excellent letters to Council:
    • Sherry Kelly – “I would like to voice my concerns based on my observations as a retired city clerk who has worked for over 30 years both in cities that elect their officials by district and at large and as someone who has been responsible for providing election services for these jurisdictions….” [MORE]
    • Attorney Terry Mollica – “I and many other Benician’s oppose the item referenced above because, as explained more fully below, there is no evidence of “racially polarized voting” within the City, as required by the California Voting Rights Act (“CYRA”) and, even if such evidence existed, adoption of “district-based elections” would not remedy the problem because of the demographics of the voters within the City…”[MORE]
    • Larnie Fox – “I am writing in opposition to any attempt to change Benicia’s voting system from “at large” to “by district”. This issue has been confusing, and the threat of possible lawsuits against the City appears to be serious. The arguments against such a switch are obvious. We are a small, homogeneous town with no known history of “racially polarized voting”, unlike the other towns that have been successfully sued. Our demographics are more like those of Huntington Beach ~ which has so far avoided a suit by responding vigorously to the initial threatening letter….” [MORE]
    • Marilyn Bardet – “While I agree and approve of the intent of the California Voting Rights Act, to protect against racial bias in elections, Benicia, being a small city, does not have the demographic profile nor voting history, as Terry’s research suggests, that would trigger such need to change to district elections….” [MORE]
    • Ralph Dennis – “The Council should vote NO to proceed with changing the election of council members from at-large to district-based elections. Benicia’s demographics, and the results of BUSD’s recent change to district elections for its Board members, demonstrate that (1) the conditions under the CA Voting Rights Act requiring such a change do not apply in Benicia, and (2) even if they did moving to district elections would not resolve the problem as the revised BUSD districts show.” [MORE]

      My thoughts on possible District Voting in Benicia

      By Roger Straw, January 17, 2020
      Roger Straw, The Benicia Independent

      On Tuesday January 21, Benicia’s City Council will consider a proposal to change our electoral process from At-Large voting for Council candidates to four newly-defined small geographical districts.  Benicia citizens need to pay attention to this – it may sound ok, but consider…

      I think our ability to join forces against the massive and mean-spirited outside corporate influences we saw in our 2018 election would be immeasurably weakened by adoption of district voting.

      In 2018, a PAC funded by Valero Services and organized labor spent over $200,000 to smear and defeat Council candidate Kari Birdseye.  (See below for background.)  A similar campaign was waged against candidate Elizabeth Patterson in 2007.

      A Council campaign funded and run in a small Benicia district would not be capable of standing up to limitless corporate PAC money.  And Benicia is way too small to be divided into four districts capable of finding and supporting multiple competitive candidates across the political spectrum.

      In many cities, district voting makes sense as a measure to strengthen and empower concentrated minority groups.  Note that I am decidedly in FAVOR of empowering minority voting strength, especially when it comes to racial and ethnic minorities.  Most of us would agree.  But Benicia’s racial and ethnic mix is not concentrated in any linear district – so district voting would do absolutely nothing to advance minority voting strength.

      What about other sub-groups in geographically defined parts of Benicia?

      Our Southampton hills 1) is already represented by Mr. Largaespada, 2) could have elected Kari Birdseye as a Southampton neighbor if she hadn’t been targeted and smeared, and 3) had Mark Hughes as a resident Council member for years.  I’m guessing Southampton probably had a few more Council members going back before my time.

      A case CAN probably be made that Benicia’s East Side has been underrepresented over the years – but district voting would create more problems than it would fix for Eastsiders.  IMPORTANT: How could an underfunded campaign in a smaller population on the East side possibly put up a fight against Valero and organized labor?!

      CORRECTION: A kind reader has pointed out that current Council member Tom Campbell lives on Benicia’s East side.  Campbell and former Council member Jan Cox-Golovich live in a section of town north of Military and just EAST of an imaginary First Street dividing line.

      MY CONCLUSION: District voting would only give outside big money greater strength to stack our City Council.

      Your voice is important!


        • My background article on Jan 6, 2020 with quote from SF Chronicle, stating over $200,000 was spent by the Valero PAC.  My comment: “Kari ran for City Council in 2018 in a field of 4, competing for 2 seats on Council.  Only she didn’t just run against her opponents.  She ran against a $200,000-plus smear campaign orchestrated by Benicia Valero Refinery and its friends in organized labor.  The three major candidates’ campaigns spent less than $30,000 each, while Valero saturated our phone lines, mailboxes, newspapers and social media with misinformation and ugly photos.”
        • My post-election call on Nov 12 2018 for Council action to reform campaign spending – including comparison of the $200,000 with candidate spending of under $30,000 each.
        • My Oct 28 2018 article just before the Nov election which reported a smear campaign total of $155,000 as of that time. My  comment in that article: “News broke in late September that a major worldwide corporate power had bullied its way into our local democratic process.  Valero Services Inc., based in Texas but with 115 subsidiaries in Delaware, Michigan, Canada and several wealthy Caribbean nations, decided it wanted to buy a seat on the Benicia City Council. Their first strategy was to spend an unknown amount of money to employ two national firms, EMC Research and Research America, to conduct a nasty telephone “push poll,” blatantly mischaracterizing and demeaning one candidate for Council and painting rosy pictures of two others.  When our City Attorney challenged the polling firms, Valero Refinery executive Don Wilson admitted that Valero paid for the poll, but neither he nor the polling firms would comply with our demands for more information.”
        • Weekly and daily reporting of details as the smear campaign unfolded:

        Benicia Observance of Martin Luther King National Holiday – Monday, January 20, 2020

        BENICIA’S 5TH ANNUAL OBSERVANCE OF THE MARTIN LUTHER KING NATIONAL HOLIDAY will take place on Monday, January 20th at 7:00 PM, hosted this year at Community Congregational Church, 1305 West 2nd St.

        Noted storyteller Linda Wright will again be present in the persona of Coretta Scott King. Civic leaders, members of the arts community, and youth will give voice to Dr. King’s legacy and his wisdom for us today.

        All who attend will be encouraged to reflect, sing together, and share their particular reasons for honoring Dr. King.

        “For 3 years Jady Montgomery gathered an informal group at the Gazebo on Martin Luther King Day,” observed Mary Susan Gast of the 2020 planning team.

        “Last year Jady decided it might be time to bring the gathering indoors.  Heritage Presbyterian was the site in 2019, and we’re hoping that the location will rotate to other settings in future years.”

        Gast continued, “We particularly urge high school or middle school students who would like to read some of Dr. King’s words, or words of their own relevant to the occasion, to contact me at That same email address works for anyone who has questions.  We look forward to continuing the tradition of a vibrant community-building MLK Day event in 2020.”