Category Archives: Benicia City Attorney Heather McLaughlin

Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson comes under fire, will stand firm

Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson
Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson

Benicia’s Mayor, Elizabeth Patterson, has been accused of a conflict of interest and asked to recuse herself from all comment and action regarding Valero Benicia Refinery’s crude by rail proposal.

Two City Council members, Mark Hughes and Christina Strawbridge, disclosed Tuesday that they initiated the inquiry with Benicia City Attorney Heather McLaughlin, acting on concerns of unnamed constituents that the Mayor is biased.  McLaughlin is said to have advised that California’s Fair Political Practices Commission would not be an appropriate venue to seek advice or action, in that there is clearly no material conflict of interest (financial gain).  McLaughlin then contracted with an outside consulting attorney,  Michael Jenkins, to write an opinion on common law grounds for recusal.

Jenkins’ opinion is inconclusive, but offers case law on bias, and suggests that it would be best for the City if Mayor Patterson would choose to recuse herself and cease all e-alerts and commentary on anything related to the issue.  “…in our opinion, a court likely would find that Mayor Patterson’s oft-expressed skepticism about transportation of crude oil by rail evidences an unacceptable probability of actual bias. The evidence is sufficient to warrant her preclusion from participation in the decision.”

In her defense, Mayor Patterson contracted the services of attorney Diane Fishburn, whose legal opinion, states in summary, “With respect to the application of the common law doctrine of conflict of interest, it is our view…that there is no evidence that you have a personal bias based on either a substantial pecuniary or personal interest in the outcome of the matter. As a public official, you certainly not only have ‘a right but an obligation to discuss issues of vital concern’ to your constituents and to state your ‘views on matters of public importance.'”

Fishburn also wrote a letter to City Attorney Heather McLaughlin, stating even more boldly the Mayor’s freedom of speech in the matter: “We have reviewed the matter with our client, and it is our opinion based on the Supreme Court’s decision in City of Fairfield v. Superior Court of Solano County (1975) 14 Cal.3d 768 that she does not have a common law conflict of interest in this matter, and that she not only has First Amendment rights as a citizen and public official, but she also has the right and duty as an elected official to participate in the public and City discussions regarding this important matter. Equally importantly, she has First amendment rights to communicate freely with her constituents and the public in general on any and all issues of public policy and concern, and any attempt by the City or city officials to curb those rights would be an unlawful restraint of her speech under the U.S. and state Constitutions.”

Mayor Patterson says she will not recuse herself, and will continue to exercise her constitutional freedoms and her responsibilities as Mayor.  In an email, she offered the following comment: “Right.  Seeking rail safety is biased?  Free speech becomes bias even before there is any action before city council?  And having an opinion about public safety, health and welfare is a mind made up?  …The message is that I should not do my job.”

Two local news media have covered this story.  For more see The Benicia Herald and the Vallejo Times-Herald.  For more background see Local Media Coverage.

Lois Kazakoff in the SF Chronicle: Mayor muzzled from speaking about crude by rail

Repost from The San Francisco Chronicle
[Editor: Minor correction – the legal opinion that would muzzle the Mayor was written by an outside contract attorney, not by City Attorney McLaughlin.  That said, Mayor Patterson has stated publicly that the city attorney has advised her not to participate “in any way in any city decisions” relating to Valero’s pending permit decision, and 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.  UPDATE: late on Nov 18, the Benicia City Council voted unanimously to waive attorney-client privilege in order to make the opinion available to the public.  DownloadJenkins Opinion Re Mayor Patterson-Valero ProjectDownload: Mayor Patterson’s attorney, Diane Fishburn’s opinion, and Fishburn’s letter to the City Attorney.  – RS]

Mayor muzzled from speaking about crude by rail

By Lois Kazakoff on November 18, 2014

Opponents in the national debate over climate change will enter the ring tonight in the City Council Chambers of the small riverside city of Benicia (Solano County). City Attorney Heather McLaughlin has thrown down the gantlet with this small item on the City Council agenda.


Buried in the legal language is a debate over Mayor Elizabeth Patterson’s First Amendment Right to communicate with the citizens of Benicia about Valero’s pending land use application to modify its refinery to receive crude by rail rather than crude by tanker ship. At stake is a robust democratic discussion over a decision that will affect not just Benicia but every community on the rail line between the Bakken Oil Shale fields in Montana and the Dakotas and Valero’s Benicia refinery.

McLaughlin has written a confidential opinion on the mayor and the crude by rail project. It is her view that she cannot release the document unless the majority of the five-member City Council waives the attorney-client privilege by which she is bound. “At least three have to decide to make the opinion public,” she told me.

Benicia is a town of 28,000. Valero is its largest taxpayer and a significant presence in the community. Beyond the smokestacks and coolers visible from I-680, the refinery’s footprint is visible downtown and throughout the city. As part of a decade-old legal settlement, the city received $15 million from Valero that it has used to fund median landscaping projects, community gardens, education programs, water audits for homes and construction of community center with sustainable building materials. But should a mayor or any other elected official be kept from speaking about a corporation with a large influence  in the town they lead?

Early this summer, when the city attorney advised the mayor that she should not send e-mail “e-alerts” to her constituents about Valero’s pending environmental impact report so as not to give an appearance of bias, Patterson hired an attorney. In a letter, the law firm wrote that the mayor did not have a disqualifying conflict of interest in the Valero matter. And further, quoting state law, “As a public official you certainly not only have ‘a right but an obligation to discuss issues of vital concern’ to your constituents and to state your ‘views on matters of public importance’.”

Patterson has told me, “The Valero project has broad issues and concerns. I was elected by people who know that I had knowledge of these concerns. I’ve campaigned on that, I’ve written on that. My constituents expect me to represent them.”

And she should. And the city is wrong to try to muzzle the mayor.

Jan Cox Golovich letter: Benicia’s big problem

Repost from The Vallejo Times-Herald
[Editor: Jan Cox Golovich is a former Benicia City Councilmember.  – RS]

Jan Cox Golovich: Benicia’s big problem

Vallejo Times-Herald, 10/24/2014

Behind closed doors, the Benicia City Attorney and certain members of the city council have attempted and failed to strip the mayor of her First Amendment right of free speech. Even though they refuse to identify themselves to the public, the council members have revealed their desperation to salvage Valero’s doomed and dangerous Crude By Rail project.

The city attorney has a much bigger problem— the State Attorney General has called out the city for the legal inadequacy of Valero’s Crude by Rail Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR). Lined up behind the state is a long list of other public agencies, NGO’s and community groups ready to humiliate the city in court should it dare certify the document without major revisions and recirculation.

A competent city attorney, acting in the public interest, would extricate us from this legal dilemma by withdrawing the currently flawed DEIR and defend freedom of speech with all her might.

Jan Cox Golovich/Former member Benicia City Council