Category Archives: Benicia City Manager

City staff again recommends approval of Valero Crude By Rail – Council can vote on Tues, Sept 20

By Roger Straw, September 15, 2016

New staff report again recommends overturning Planning Commission’s unanimous decision

oil tank carsOn Thursday, City of Benicia staff released the agenda for the crucial and perhaps decisive September 20 meeting of the Benicia City Council.

A staff report accompanying the agenda stands by the staff’s previous positions on Valero’s oil train proposal, recommending on p. 10 that Council approve Valero’s appeal, reject Benicia’s Planning Commission decision, and approve the Crude By Rail project.

The staff report fails to quote the City’s own strong defense of local land use authority as stated in its recent legal brief before the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB), and attaches the brief seemingly as an afterthought, the 10th among 10 attachments.

Although City staff follows protocol, offering Council four alternative courses of action including approval, denial, re-working the environmental report and continuing discussion – it’s recommendation is unenlightened, a repeat of previously heard pro-oil-train postures of Valero and the City’s paid consultants.

The one indication that staff is giving Council real alternatives is that they include a ready draft of a resolution to deny the project, a professional courtesy not afforded to Benicia’s Planning Commission last February.

That said, eight of the ten attachments that accompany the staff report  lean heavily in favor of Valero and against opponents. A new memo by Valero Benicia executive Don Cuffel disputes the findings of environmental expert Dr. Phyllis Fox. In the memo, Cuffel touts his own experience and authority, then launches into a 6-page attack on Dr. Fox, characterizing her arguments as based on “ideology or on heated rhetoric.”

The City’s release of Cuffel’s September 13 memo at this late date will no doubt make it difficult if not impossible for Dr. Fox to rebut and defend herself and her positions prior to the September 20 meeting of Council.

The agenda also attaches a second September 13 memo commissioned by Valero that claims Benicia’s Sulphur Springs Creek is perfectly safe from potential environmental impacts, and that the “proposed project meets the requirements and intent of the City of Benicia’s stream setback ordinance.”

It is interesting that public comment on the proposal has officially been closed, and yet Valero’s latest memos are attached to the official Council agenda.  Would the City have given such prominence to an afterword by Dr. Fox?  Did staff choose to attach the recent critiques of Benicia structural engineer Amir Firouz or Benicia engineer C. Bart Sullivan, who have pointed out on-site impacts that have nothing to do with rail-related dangers?  Of course not.  When does manufactured rebuttal by the project applicant come to a close here?

Valero plays hard ball, of course, and has done so throughout the more than three years of procedings.  One can only guess at the behind-the-scenes pressure applied by Valero to City staff and supposedly impartial City consultants.  Who knows why our City Manager, Assistant City Manager and Principal Planner have chosen to leave our employ in recent weeks?

Opponents of the project have been waiting and watching for signals from Benicia’s new interim City Manager Steve Salomon. It is disappointing, if not alarming, to witness staff’s new (old) approach on Valero’s dirty and dangerous proposal. The lone holdovers on senior staff are City Attorney Heather McLaughlin and Community Develolpment Director Christina Ratcliffe. These two will be responsible, along with Council members, if Valero gets its way.

One can only hope that City Council members have taken note of the recent derailment disaster in Mosier, Oregon, the consistent input of outside experts, local structural engineers, California’s Attorney General and outside attorneys, and make a decision – finally on September 20 – to be done with Valero’s foolish proposal.

There is ample evidence of off-site and on-site factors that are sufficient for denial of this project. An entirely inadequate environmental review should not be certified, and a permit should not be granted.

(For a full listing of links to the staff report and attachments, see Benicia City Council: Sept. 20 agenda & attachments.)

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attend2016-09-20x

Please attend the Tuesday, September 20 City Council meeting. Arrive early if you want a seat – some  will arrive as early as 5pm for this 7pm meeting! City Hall, 250 East L Street, Benicia.

    Benicia City Manager leaving to take post in Martinez, CA

    By Roger Straw, April 30, 2016

    City Manager Brad Kilger oversaw Valero Crude By Rail proposal, not sticking around for outcome

    Brad Kilger, City Manager of Benicia, 2010-2016
    Brad Kilger, City Manager of Benicia, 2010-2016

    In Benicia’s Council/Manager form of government, there is no more powerful person than the City Manager.  The Mayor and City Council supposedly run the city, and they do make the final decisions. Some decisions are also made by Commissions, but the real power in Benicia is the city manager.

    The CM presides over staff, and staff guides every decision of our elected and appointed officials, making recommendations and consulting with officials outside of public meetings. For instance, the city manager works with the mayor in setting the agenda for every Council meeting.

    Brad Kilger was hired as Benicia’s city manager in 2010, and has overseen the Valero Crude By Rail (CBR) proposal from the start. Outwardly, CBR has been routed through the City’s Community Development Department and its Planning Division. Those offices have undergone personnel changes during the lengthy 3½ year Valero process, but Mr. Kilger has remained in charge throughout.

    Kilger is due to begin work in Martinez on June 13, leaving only 6 weeks to finish up here in Benicia. As of this writing, no word has been released as to Kilger’s final day in Benicia. Nor have details been given about his rather sudden departure.

    Getting out of dodge before a decision on CBR may very well be a smart career move. Everyone expects litigation, which would be any manager’s nightmare, and a loss either way could be expected to leave a blemish on his professional profile.

    Kilger was welcomed to Benicia by Council members and citizens in 2010 as a promising new presence, bringing credentials and commitments that offered hope in the area of environmental sustainability. Indeed, his tenure has seen numerous advances on that front. But many of those advances can be credited primarily to the leadership of Mayor Elizabeth Patterson and the Community Sustainability Commission.

    City Council during Kilger’s time in Benicia has often been contentious. Collegiality has often been wanting among Council members, and the public has come into fierce conflict with staff over staff’s seemingly blind support for Valero’s CBR proposal.

    The City will no doubt bring in an interim. No telling how long the interim will be in charge, but it seems highly likely a permanent replacement would not be in place until January 2017, after elections, and under the authority of a new City Council.

    It seems likely the City Council will face a decision on Valero CBR in September with a new and possibly untested interim city manager. If the delay for review by the federal Surface Transportation Board results in a re-write and recirculation of the environmental report with attendant written comments and lengthy public hearings, it could be a real handful for whoever is in charge.

    It may be a real challenge locating a qualified candidate who is willing to step in at this critical moment in Benicia’s history.