GRANT COOKE: Time to Shed the Company Town Label

With permission by the author. (Published in the Benicia Herald, 5/3/16, no online presence, thus no link…)

Time to Shed the Company Town Label

By Grant Cooke, April 29, 2016
Grant Cooke
Grant Cooke

I have a great deal of respect and gratitude toward municipal politicians, particularly those who toil on the city council and commission level. The hours are long, the decisions tough, and the pay bad to non-existent. Heaven knows that without good folks looking after the stuff that keeps a social contract intact, Thomas Hobbes’s “natural state” of chaos, violence, and potholes would be the norm.

This goes for the folks who lead our fair city. Benicia’s mayor and members of the council seem like fine people. They attend the meetings, do the horrific amount of homework required to be conversant with the issues, and overall appear to be decent folks with a sincere believe that they are doing the collective good by serving their fellow citizens. I’m grateful for their service; but I just wish that three of them—Alan Schwartzman, Christina Strawbridge and Mark Hughes—would resign.

Their collective efforts to secure Valero’s delay of the crude-by-rail decision against overwhelming community disapproval, the unanimous rejection of the project by the Planning Commission, the concerns of every major city along the proposed rail path, and the thousands of letters and statements against the project by informed and credible experts raises the bar of small town political shamefulness.

That it was clear from the start that the three council members were going to side with Valero verges on chicanery. Why put the town’s citizens through the hope of believing that their concerns of health and wellbeing are being heard and matter, if you support a volatile project that has a blast zone that includes an elementary school?

Since none of the three has stepped forward with a clear and convincing argument about why they sided with Valero—after all Valero would still bring the oil in by existing means and really doesn’t need the continuous line of daily rail tankers to stay in business and pay its taxes—we are left with the impression that once again, a small American town is at the mercy of a major oil company.

The history of the US oil industry is a trail of tears going back to the early days of ruthless land grabs, the mendacity and murder of Standard Oil’s oligarchy, the tragic violence of the Middle East, and the rise of climate change and environmental pollution. And to think, all this could, and still can, be avoided by shifting from carbon-based to renewable energy.

(As an aside, look at Denton Texas. This small Texas oil town, home to many of Dallas’s oil executives, banned fracking and drilling in the city limits. Evidently, they didn’t want to run the risk of an accident close to parks and schools. There’s a lesson here for Benicia. As a state, New York stood tall against the oil industry, but Denton is the only US small town I know of to have the self-respect required to say enough.)

So, the question before the citizens of Benicia is now what? What good is Benicia’s formal planning process if corporate power can bludgeon a thorough and lengthy review and rejection of the crude-by-rail proposal? Why put the residents through all the work and hope of participating in the democratic process if there is no intention by the council to understand their concerns or follow their wishes?

I grew up in rural America and know what a “company town” is. In some ways, it was simple and easy, letting the company bosses tell you where to work, what and who to like, what to believe in and who to vote for.

But it lacked fulfillment and self-determination, and I moved to the Bay Area to be part of the epicenter of the world’s intellectual and scientific renaissance where freedom of thought, action, and the ideals of local democracy are so highly acclaimed. Yet, ironically, I end up in a “company town”, where a huge carbon polluter can seemly send three decent council members scurrying to service its greed.

The problems of 21st century cities, big and small, are complex and can no longer be inclusive of one economic driver or administered by one major corporate power. For Benicia to move forward and join the extraordinary Bay Area knowledge-based economy we need to say goodbye to those three council members who lack the wherewithal to help the city past its company-town era.

Other once-rural Bay Area cities have thrown of the oppressive yoke of being run by a single company, exchanging “easy” for self-determination. Cities like Sunnyvale and Mountain View long ago threw off the yoke of the defense industry and learned to reinvent themselves and flourish. Walnut Creek, Livermore, and now Richmond are joining the prosperity of a sophisticated diverse economy. Vallejo and the other cities along I-80 are showing signs of change as the robust modern Bay Area economy moves outward from Silicon Valley.

If Benicia hopes to continue as a fully functioning city with a compliment of services and a healthy and vigorous citizenry, it has to look forward, shed its dependence on Valero, and embrace a 21st century reality.

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Cooke is a long-time Benicia resident, author and CEO of Sustainable Energy Associates. His newest book, Smart Green Cities: Toward a Carbon Neutral World was published in April. The Green Industrial Revolution: Energy, Engineering and Economics was published last year.
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