Category Archives: Benicia City Council

Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson asked to recuse herself from Valero crude-by-rail decision

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

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.

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Valero slurps up grant money that was recommended for smaller non-profits; City Council approves

From Benicia Independent reader Judi Sullivan of Benicia
[Editor: Note that the City Council was definitely NOT unanimous in its approval of the money grab by Valero.  Councilmember Schwartzman proposed the deal.  He, along with Councilmembers Hughes and Strawbridge voted in favor; Mayor Patterson and Councilmember Campbell opposed.  – RS]

Letter to the Editor

By Judi Sullivan, 6/27/14

It’s important for us, as citizens, to be aware of what our city staff and council members are doing, as they are the rule makers for our town.  After attending last week’s June 17th   City Council Meeting, I became concerned with how the annual grant proposals introduced by the Community Sustainability Commission were addressed by this governing body.

The Agenda for the evening was to go over the grant proposals that had been submitted to the CSC which then made recommendations for granting seven of the 13 proposals.  They presented the Council with three well-delineated tiers of charted options, noting the ones they felt most qualified to be awarded with the monies available, although stated all that were submitted had their merits.

Financial backing for these yearly distributed grants comes from a large legal settlement made between The Good Neighbor Steering Committee, a small group of volunteers from the Benicia citizenry, and the Valero Refinery.  It was amended in 2010 to include the City of Benicia as a third party in the settlement agreement.   Members from the GNSC initiated the CSC, which is currently an advisory committee to the City Council and as such, was the overseer of the grant funding process.

The CSC’s vision for the purpose of these grants was to create a ripple effect throughout the community by promoting programs that offer alternatives in how to be more individually and community-wise sustainable in line with The City of Benicia’s Climate Action Plan.  Special emphasis was placed on proposals dealing with reducing water/energy/green house gases.  This included projects that would educate the public on these issues. The groups chosen for funding by CSC were typically grassroots non profits and small businesses that met the above criteria, giving top priority to those seeking funding who did not have an adequate source of financial assistance available to bring their worthy proposals to fruition.

One grant stood out from the rest.  It was from Valero.  Their proposal asked for around $857,000 to install a water-reducing boiler unit.  To accept this proposal would have taken the entire amount of money set aside for grants this year.   Although Valero has the right to apply for a grant, one might ponder why Valero, the 4th largest oil company in the US, would be in competition with small grassroots non-profits and smaller businesses for one of these grants?  Especially considering that the monies available for these grants comes from the settlement with Valero.  Apparently, as part of the settlement agreement, they have a right to compete with the other grants presented, yet they are not to be given special privilege for receiving one.   As it turned out, most of the council session was focused on issues surrounding their request, in lieu of most of the other grants, which got little or no floor time.

If Valero’s boiler unit is built, it would cause a major reduction in water usage for the refinery.  That easily fits the water reduction aspect of the grant criteria.  Since the refinery uses fifty percent of our city’s raw water supply, and our city received no water allotment from the state this year, there is a pressing need for all of us to reduce requirements for our city’s water.  For the first time in our history, we are relying upon stored water.

The issue concerning offering Valero a city-funded grant to install a new boiler stems from the fact that Valero has ample funds to complete this desired project on their own.   It has been revealed that making this change to their facility would pay for itself in a year’s time with a million dollar water cost savings to the refinery.  When one contemplates the short and long term benefits to Valero, and consequently, to our city, one is led to wonder why the decision to make this change didn’t happen long before now as part of a cost effective business plan?

As a city, do we want to set a precedent for having our grant funds disproportionately doled out to highly profitable corporations who don’t need our financial assistance to make the needed difference in lieu of giving attention to our other grant proposals which are deemed valuable but are unable to operate without grant approval? Are we missing the point of providing these grants?  Are we dishonoring the intrinsic value of the other grants because they can’t possibly compete with what a large corporation can do?  Is it really necessary to make a “deal” with Valero in order to get our other programs funded?

The proposed “deal” brokered by Councilman Schwartzman with Valero General Manager, John Hill during the session was certainly handled in an unorthodox manner.  Since this situation was written up in the June 19th edition of the “Benicia Herald” about the City Council Meeting, details of that discussion won’t be repeated here, although it might be fair to say it would appear that this “deal” may have been discussed privately by those promoting it prior to the meeting without the full knowledge of others who would normally be part of such negotiations.  One of those excluded parties was GNSC, who was not informed of this plan, nor was their perspective welcomed.   This was highly irregular since they are the originators of the settlement agreement that has provided the funds being debated.  They are still involved, by law, with carrying out all aspects of the settlement along with the city and Valero.

Supposedly, the delayed decisions on approval of grants will be taken up once again at the next City Council Meeting in July.  If you have a vested interest in grants up for approval this year, you might want to pay closer attention to what is happening.

As we know, The City Council has the power of the vote, but we as citizens have the right to voice our opinions on such matters.

Judi Sullivan

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