Category Archives: Benicia City Council

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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    EDITORIAL: Valero wins one; attorneys wrangle; opponents get testy

    By Roger Straw, April 29, 2016

    Valero wins one; attorneys wrangle; opponents get testy

    Catching up on recent events

    RDS_2015-06-21_200pxSorry, I had to take a little break.  When the Benicia City Council voted 3-2 to put off a decision on Valero’s crude by rail proposal (CBR), it was just a bit too much.

    I was deeply discouraged by the majority’s need for yet more information.  Three Council members wish to hear from the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) before making the decision whether to permit a rail offloading rack on Valero property – a project that would foul California air and endanger lives and properties from here to the border and beyond, a project that would clearly contribute to the ongoing effects of global warming.

    So I was one discouraged 3½ year supposedly-retired volunteer.  I was in no shape last week to send out my Friday newsletter.

    Here, as best I can summarize, is news from the last 2 weeks:

    Valero wins one

    You will recall that Valero appealed the Planning Commission’s unanimous February decision on crude by rail to not certify the environmental report and to deny the land use permit. Then at the Benicia City Council’s opening hearing on the appeal on March 15, Valero surprised everyone by asking for a delay in the proceedings so that it could ask for guidance from the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB).

    City staff recommended against Valero’s request, rejecting the proposed delay as unnecessary and risky, given that the City and Valero could end up with a “stale” environmental report that requires yet another time-consuming revision and more hearings.

    Opponents also argued against the delay, noting that the request would be carefully framed by Valero in its own favor, submitted for review to an industry-friendly STB, and result in a judgement that would still be subject to final review in a court of law. Opponents also pointed out the possibly that the delay was a Valero political tactic, given that this is an election year with three members of City Council up for re-election.

    At the most recent City Council hearing on April 19, contract attorney Bradley Hogin disclosed that he was not involved in the staff decision to recommend against the delay, and that he disagreed with his employers. Given every opportunity by Council members, Hogin argued at length in favor of the delay. During verbal questioning, Council did not give similar opportunity to Hogin’s bosses to argue against the request for delay.

    And guess what, 3 members of Council were convinced by the pleasant instruction of their outside attorney Hogin that we would do well to hear from the STB before rushing (3 years into the process) to judgement.

    Win one for Valero.  Council will resume consideration in September.

    The attorneys wrangle

    We are asked to believe that the big issue here after 3 years of environmental review has nothing at all to do with the earth or the health and safety of you, me, our neighbors or the lands and wildlife.

    Supposedly, according to Valero’s attorney and contract attorney Hogin, it’s all about “federal preemption.”  Supposedly, our city officials have no legal authority to impose conditions or mitigations or deny a permit in this case.

    However, according to California’s Attorney General and environmental attorneys, “federal preemption” does not prohibit City government from making such land use decisions based on local police powers and the legal requirement to protect public health and safety. Federal preemption protects against state and local authorities regulating railroads. A refinery, says our Attorney General, is not a railroad. Go figure.

    Anyway, Valero’s attorney has written several letters on preemption and taking issue with the Attorney General. The Attorney General has written several letters, sticking by its argument. Environmental attorneys have written several letters making similar arguments.

    In addition to the letters, Valero’s attorney and Mr. Hogin have testified at length under questioning by City Council members. Environmental attorneys have been given only 5 minutes each to speak at hearings, with little or no back and forth questioning from City Council members.

    Everyone I have talked to expects this decision to end up in court, whether or not the STB issues a ruling, and regardless of which way they rule.

    Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community gets testy

    Like me, I suspect, members of our local opposition group, Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community (BSHC) were highly disappointed and discouraged by the Council vote to delay for Valero and the STB.

    In interviews and online statements that followed the April 19 Council vote, some BSHC members were quick to presume that the 3 Council members who voted for delay would also support Valero when it comes to a final vote in September.

    Of course, a 3-2 vote favoring Valero in September is not the only possible outcome. Some would say that the next 5 months might best be spent respectfully reminding Council members of facts of the case, and encouraging them to make the right decision.

    Those of us who have spent countless hours opposing Valero’s dirty and dangerous proposal have known all along that it is an uphill battle, that the odds are against us, that big business prevails all too often against the interests of health, safety and clean air.  But look what happened at our Planning Commission.  There is hope.

    It seems to me that the presumption of a negative outcome can only serve to harden Council members’ attitudes and opinions.  But I may be wrong.

    Some will continue to argue that Council members should be made to feel the public’s disappointment, that outrage and pessimism is understandable, and that an obvious implication is that unhappy voters will have their say in November.

    I’m convinced that hardball politics and small-town respect for decision makers will need to co-exist over the next few months. Come September, we shall see.

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      DAVIS ENTERPRISE COLUMN: Benicia council calls a timeout on oil train issue

      Repost from the Davis Enterprise FORUM

      Benicia council calls a timeout on oil train issue

      Special to the Enterprise by Elizabeth Lasensky, April 24, 2016

      On Tuesday night, a majority of the Benicia City Council voted to allow the Valero refinery a continuance on hearings on its oil train project request. Valero wants the delay to petition the federal Surface Transportation Board for clarification on federal pre-emption and indirect pre-emption of its project.

      Although Valero is an oil refinery, now calling itself a “shipper,” the crude oil will be traveling in rail cars on Union Pacific tracks. However, the project itself will be on Valero property within the city of Benicia.

      The Surface Transportation Board’s website states this about its oversight:

      “The agency has jurisdiction over railroad rate and service issues and rail restructuring transactions (mergers, line sales, line construction and line abandonments); certain trucking company, moving van and non-contiguous ocean shipping company rate matters; certain intercity passenger bus company structure, financial and operational matters; and rates and services of certain pipelines not regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

      “The agency has authority to investigate rail service matters of regional and national significance.”

      Federal pre-emption dates to the founding of the railroads. Only the federal government has regulatory authority over railroads. Cities and states cannot create regulations regarding railroads.

      The majority of the Benicia City Council members commented that they did not have enough information on pre-emption to move forward with a vote on the environmental impact report and the use permit. Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson attempted to point out that there is sufficient evidence to know how the STB would rule and that the council should move forward. In her view, there are other issues and projects on which city staff need to spend time.

      By making this decision, the council chose to ignore three years of work and a unanimous opposition decision by its own Planning Commission; public comments by many of their own residents; countless hours of staff time; testimony by up- and down-rail elected officials, agencies and citizens; comments and recommendations by experts from various air quality boards; opinions by lawyers from several nonprofit agencies; and expert comments from the office of California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

      Based on their questions and comments, it was apparent that those council members had not read the EIR and the subsequent public comments. Rather, they chose to accept the opinion of the city’s contract attorney in lieu of doing their homework.

      By allowing Valero this delay to submit a petition to the Surface Transportation Board, the council has opened the door to abdicating its authority to determine its own land-use policy within the city boundaries. The EIR likely will become stale and all the work that went into that document might need to be redone. Further, any opinion offered by the STB still could be challenged in court.

      Whether or not an opinion has been made by the STB, the Benicia City Council will reconvene hearings on Sept. 21. Two members insist they must have this information to make a decision and want to reconsider what to do if the decision is not returned by this date.

      Up- and down-rail communities, agencies and activists will be closely following the process.

      — Elizabeth Lasensky is a Davis resident and oil train activist.
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