Category Archives: Benicia City Council

City of Benicia kicks off Pride month with flag-raising

Elected officials, city staff, community members and local organizations celebrate start of Pride Month in Benicia

Amidst a flurry of legislative attacks, hateful rhetoric and violent threats targeting the LGBTQ+ community, Benicia City leaders raised the Pride flag over City Hall and showed us that bigotry has no home in our Be-Kind City. Attendees included Mayor Steve Young, Vice-Mayor Terry Scott, Council Members Tom Campbell and Trevor Macenski and Interim City Manager Mario Giuliani. | Image shared from the City of Benicia Facebook post.

From the City of Benicia Facebook Account, June 2, 2023:

Today, City of Benicia elected officials, staff, community members, representatives from local organizations, and a new friend Benji, participated in raising the Pride Flag in front of City Hall for Pride Month!

[Note from BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian: You can click through to the Facebook post to learn who Benji is, but read this first: according to the Human Rights Campaign, more than 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced across the country in 2023 alone, with 29 bills targeting transgender rights passing in 14 states and more on the way. While many of us probably believe that these challenges are a ‘Red State problem,’ Solano County is not immune – LGBTQ activists recently alleged that Vacaville’s mayor has refused to recognize Pride Month. With corporations like Target and cities as close as Vacaville apparently caving to far-right backlash, NOW is the time to stand up for our LGBTQ+ friends and family. A City flag-raising for Pride Month shouldn’t be a radical act of defiance, but it is swiftly becoming exactly that.]

Largaespada letter ‘A Distortion of Truth’

[BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian — On April 19, 2023, the Benicia Herald published a letter penned by former City Council Member Lionel Largaespada. In his letter, Mr. Largaespada expressed “shock” that Benicia will realize a large deficit this fiscal year. Wednesday, April 26’s edition of the Herald featured a response from Benicia’s former Finance Director and current Assistant City Manager, Bret Prebula. In it, Mr. Prebula highlights our former Council Member’s many “distortions of truth” and notes that Mr. Largaespada conveniently avoids taking responsibility for some of the deficit spending he railed about. For Benicia to maintain its services and community benefits, “new tax revenue is a must, [and] that is a factual reality.” We must spurn politically motivated, distorted narratives about Benicia’s budget crisis and instead pledge to work together toward a common goal: Benicia’s financial sustainability. And with it, our future. — N.C.]

Former Benicia City Council Member Lionel Largaespada grimaces as he considers his position.
Former Benicia City Council Member Lionel Largaespada, pictured at a 2022 candidate forum in Benicia, CA.

Distortion of the Truth

by Bret Prebula, April 26, 2023, originally posted in the Benicia Herald.

The letter sent by former City Councilmember Largaespada is a distortion of the truth. Mr. Largaespada makes accusations of some lack of professional ability or structure to oversee and manage the City’s budget, that is frankly just untrue. In fact, the finance department has over the past two years transitioned into a professional and higher performing department. The City had a history of poor financial leadership and in just two years we have not fixed all the sins of the past, but we are a long way from the past poor performance with a vision of continuing to improve.

Mr. Largaespada speaks of this “discrepancy” from the April 2022 5-year forecast discussion to the March 2023 FY 2022/23 mid-year budget review. What Mr. Largaespada fails to mention is that his comparison is like comparing apples and oranges. The 5-year forecast is exactly that, a forecast, to provide the council, staff, and the community an awareness under current revenue and expense trends what financial health the City is predicting and what is the sensitivity to changes in the system, i.e., revenue decreases or expense increases. The summary of that exercise was that the city has a clear structural deficit. The amount of surplus or deficit of the projection within the 5-year forecast is to achieve a trend to assist in policy decision making as actual fiscal years can have specific changes that could not be considered in a projection. (Which is what happened in FY 22/23- current fiscal year).

Mr. Largaespada wants to paint a picture that the current deficit was something new, while in fact Mr. Largaespada was on the City Council and approved the FY 2022 & FY 2023 budget, at that time the budget clearly was approved with deficit spending. The current estimated deficit was in fact not shocking since the Council knew it had approved a deficit budget when the budgets were adopted in June 2021 (inclusive of Mr. Largaespada). The additional level of deficit was due to some approved changes in Public Works salaries and other operating costs throughout the City for which Mr. Largaespada was supportive.

Our City is going through a difficult fiscal time, that is a clear truth, but this fiscal issue has been looming for a long time. We are now making sure our community knows the issue is realized and no longer just a theory. We will and have to make some operational reductions/efficiency changes, but new tax revenue is a must, that is a factual reality. The only other outcome without revenue is to dramatically change the services and community benefits (such as parks, library hours, level of public safety support) we can provide. 

It is important that we all come together at this time to solve our citywide issues not distort information to further a narrative. We need to focus on our common interest that bind us together, we need to trust the staff that have shown in the past two years they are willing and capable to lead the City through this time, and trust our council (asking question genuinely to achieve information). As a citizen, I look forward to those interactions and discussions.

With hope,

Bret Prebula, Resident and Assistant City Manager

While you’re here…

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Deputy City Manager Mario Giuliani named interim Benicia city manager

Giuliani will replace City Manager Erik Upson who is leaving on March 1 to take a position with a global security firm.

The Vallejo Sun, by Ryan Geller, Feb 14, 2023

BENICIA – The Benicia City Council unanimously appointed Deputy City Manager Mario Giuliani as the city’s interim city manager at a special meeting on Monday night.

Giuliani will replace City Manager Erik Upson who is leaving on March 1 to take a position with a global security firm.

The city is still working on the details of Giuliani’s contract as Benicia’s interim city manager, a position which could lead to the more permanent city manager position after a trial period.

Giuliani has been Benicia’s deputy city manager for two years. Prior to that, he served as the city’s economic development manager for 13 years. Giuliani has lived in Benicia for 30 years, he has worked for Benicia, Walnut Creek and Vallejo parks departments and in the Benicia City attorney’s office.

“So much of a City Manager’s job is about communication, both the ability to convey a message but also to listen.” Giuliani told the Vallejo Sun.

According to Giuliani, a key experience that will inform his approach as city manager is his work on Benicia’s sales tax measures. Measure C, a 1 cent sales tax to provide funding for essential city services, passed in 2014 but Measure R, which would have increased Benicia’s sales tax by three-quarters of a cent to fund roads, failed by a narrow margin in November.

“From that loss it’s important to take stock in the listening piece in communication,” Giuliani said in an email. “There was clearly a sentiment in the community that I missed or failed to properly address. How one accepts accountability in defeat is also a necessary experience and a trait needed for one to be successful.”

In the past, the City Council has filled the city manager position both by recruiting outside candidates as well as drawing from the city’s own ranks – as they did with Eric Upson, who was the city’s police chief prior to his appointment as city manager.

This time, considering the urgency of the city’s current projects and the qualifications of several city staff members, the Council chose to select from internal candidates.

“There are about five or six people who work for the City of Benicia that are very highly qualified, so that’s a blessing and on the other hand… how do you pick one,” Councilmember Tom Campbell told the Vallejo Sun.

The city manager is a difficult position, because the right candidate “has to have good interpersonal and communication skills, but they also have to be able to look at a set of numbers and policies and say this is how the city is going to run,” Campbell said. “Most city managers are really good at one or the other, it’s rare that you see them excel at doing both.”

Upson said that the biggest challenge that the new City Manager will face is balancing revenue with the cost of repairing and upgrading Benicia’s aging infrastructure, such as roads and the city’s water supply and wastewater system. “Unfortunately, it’s this generation that will have to deal with these issues,” Upson said in an email. “The wheels are simply going to come off otherwise.”

Despite the upcoming challenges, Upson said that he feels that he is leaving the city in a good position with a talented staff and a council that works together to address the difficult problems.

Last month, Upson announced that he would retire from his position as city manager just over two years after he was appointed. He accepted an offer from a security firm that recruited him for an international position. He said that the opportunity to travel and a salary that will go farther as his children enter college were the factors that tipped the scales toward the new position.

“You may still see me around as I intend to stay on as a Volunteer Reserve Police Officer, working occasionally to support the Police Department,” Upson said in a statement.

Benicia City Council approves housing element plan despite concerns

[Editor – Coverage of Council’s ‘Housing Element’ decision on January 24.  For additional background, see earlier stories on BenIndy below– R.S.]
Benicia City Council approves housing element plan despite concerns
Benicia City Hall.

The Vallejo Sun, by Ryan Geller, February 2, 2023

BENICIA – The Benicia City Council unanimously approved zoning amendments this week to facilitate new housing over the next eight years as part of a state requirement that cities in California create a long-term growth plan.

This formal adoption of the housing element on Tuesday came on the state deadline for adoption after controversy over the city’s plans. Last week, more than 80 people filled the council chambers to express concerns about historical preservation and equitable growth.

The housing element is part of the City’s General plan and it is intended to insure that the city can meet future housing needs in an equitable manner. Since 1969, the state has required cities and counties to adjust zoning rules every eight years to accommodate each jurisdiction’s share of the state’s housing goals for all income levels, known as the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA).

The needs assessment determined that Benicia should add at least 750 new housing units over the next eight years. Benicia’s zoning changes could accommodate up to 1,236 new units.

Most of the zoning changes are to the downtown area and the city’s east side. The permitted density for housing will be increased to 30 units per acre and buildings in residential zones will be allowed to cover 45% of the lot instead of 40%. The building height limit in some zones will be increased to three stories instead of the current limits of two to two-and-a-half stories.

Community comments focused on concerns related to Benicia’s historical sites and districts. Several community members brought up concerns about a portion of the Benicia City Cemetery that had been included in the list of sites for possible development. Others spoke about impacts to historic districts that could affect not only specific sites but the character of Benicia.

Rezoned sites in the Downtown Historic Conservation District.
Rezoned sites in the Downtown Historic Conservation District. Map via city of Benicia.

In preserving the historical aspects of this town, “it’s not just the buildings, it’s the setting, it’s the entire context.” said Benicia resident Linda Chandler.

Many of the commenters requested that the council reject the current housing element and instead revise the proposed project to reflect an alternative identified in an environmental review. The alternative would have significantly reduced impacts to the city’s historic resources by eliminating the rezoning of all of the locations in Benicia’s two historic districts, the downtown area and the Arsenal district.

One of the key complaints from community members about the housing element was that moderate and low income units were more heavily distributed in the east side when the intent of state’s housing law is to create an even distribution of housing units available to all income levels.

Marilyn Bardet, who has lived on the east side for 37 years, expressed environmental justice concerns about locations in the Arsenal Historic district. She noted that one of the locations, 1471 Park Road, is in a high traffic area close to the Valero refinery and the asphalt plant that may emit dangerous chemicals. “It is surrounded by active pipelines and I-780,” she said. “This is no place to put children and families, especially low-income folks.”

1451 Park Road, in the Arsenal Historic Conservation District
The large triangular site, 1471 Park Road, in the Arsenal Historic Conservation District, will be rezoned under the Benicia housing element plan. Map via city of Benicia.

According to the city staff, only certain sites qualify for low income housing and the staff evenly distributed the low income units across all the available sites. But the east side does have two large sites that meet the qualifications and can accommodate a large number of low income units.

They also noted that the downtown area offered sites that furthered local and state goals of reducing vehicle miles traveled by creating housing near transit, jobs and services.

Mayor Steve Young pleaded with the community members to support the housing element, saying the benefits of the housing development planning include creating more walkable cities, reducing homelessness and reducing commutes.

The mayor also broached more personal and localized points in his appeal to Benicia residents, “Our kids would like to live here and they can’t afford to do that because the houses are simply too expensive and there are not enough of them.”

He added that a variety of housing stock could provide more appropriate housing for seniors and improve the city’s finances. “Frankly, more people and more growth means more tax revenue and we need more tax revenue if we are going to maintain the level of community services that people have come to expect,” he said.

Councilmember Trevor Macenski said that he thought the council has gone above and beyond in their community engagement efforts for the housing element, holding 25 public meetings on the issue.

City staff did make one change based on the community concerns by removing a portion of the cemetery from the list of potential development sites. The staff said that the cemetery site was one of the only sites that could be feasibly removed without requiring extensive revisions that would not allow the City to meet the state’s Jan. 31 deadline.

According to the city attorney, failure to meet the deadline would expose the city to lawsuits from housing advocacy groups and the city would be vulnerable to state laws such as the builders remedy which allow developers to circumvent the local approval process in jurisdictions that are not in compliance with state law. The state could even go as far as to revoke the city’s right to issue permits at all.

“It is entirely feasible that if we don’t do the final adoption of the zoning map tonight, a developer… could build anywhere at any height, at any density and the city would lose all discretion,” Young said. “That’s why the Jan. 31 deadline was so important and why we are intent on meeting that deadline to preserve our ability to regulate housing development.”

See earlier on BenIndy: