Category Archives: Local elections

My thoughts on possible District Voting in Benicia

By Roger Straw, January 17, 2020
Roger Straw, The Benicia Independent

On Tuesday January 21, Benicia’s City Council will consider a proposal to change our electoral process from At-Large voting for Council candidates to four newly-defined small geographical districts.  Benicia citizens need to pay attention to this – it may sound ok, but consider…

I think our ability to join forces against the massive and mean-spirited outside corporate influences we saw in our 2018 election would be immeasurably weakened by adoption of district voting.

In 2018, a PAC funded by Valero Services and organized labor spent over $200,000 to smear and defeat Council candidate Kari Birdseye.  (See below for background.)  A similar campaign was waged against candidate Elizabeth Patterson in 2007.

A Council campaign funded and run in a small Benicia district would not be capable of standing up to limitless corporate PAC money.  And Benicia is way too small to be divided into four districts capable of finding and supporting multiple competitive candidates across the political spectrum.

In many cities, district voting makes sense as a measure to strengthen and empower concentrated minority groups.  Note that I am decidedly in FAVOR of empowering minority voting strength, especially when it comes to racial and ethnic minorities.  Most of us would agree.  But Benicia’s racial and ethnic mix is not concentrated in any linear district – so district voting would do absolutely nothing to advance minority voting strength.

What about other sub-groups in geographically defined parts of Benicia?

Our Southampton hills 1) is already represented by Mr. Largaespada, 2) could have elected Kari Birdseye as a Southampton neighbor if she hadn’t been targeted and smeared, and 3) had Mark Hughes as a resident Council member for years.  I’m guessing Southampton probably had a few more Council members going back before my time.

A case CAN probably be made that Benicia’s East Side has been underrepresented over the years – but district voting would create more problems than it would fix for Eastsiders.  IMPORTANT: How could an underfunded campaign in a smaller population on the East side possibly put up a fight against Valero and organized labor?!

CORRECTION: A kind reader has pointed out that current Council member Tom Campbell lives on Benicia’s East side.  Campbell and former Council member Jan Cox-Golovich live in a section of town north of Military and just EAST of an imaginary First Street dividing line.

MY CONCLUSION: District voting would only give outside big money greater strength to stack our City Council.

Your voice is important!


    • My background article on Jan 6, 2020 with quote from SF Chronicle, stating over $200,000 was spent by the Valero PAC.  My comment: “Kari ran for City Council in 2018 in a field of 4, competing for 2 seats on Council.  Only she didn’t just run against her opponents.  She ran against a $200,000-plus smear campaign orchestrated by Benicia Valero Refinery and its friends in organized labor.  The three major candidates’ campaigns spent less than $30,000 each, while Valero saturated our phone lines, mailboxes, newspapers and social media with misinformation and ugly photos.”
    • My post-election call on Nov 12 2018 for Council action to reform campaign spending – including comparison of the $200,000 with candidate spending of under $30,000 each.
    • My Oct 28 2018 article just before the Nov election which reported a smear campaign total of $155,000 as of that time. My  comment in that article: “News broke in late September that a major worldwide corporate power had bullied its way into our local democratic process.  Valero Services Inc., based in Texas but with 115 subsidiaries in Delaware, Michigan, Canada and several wealthy Caribbean nations, decided it wanted to buy a seat on the Benicia City Council. Their first strategy was to spend an unknown amount of money to employ two national firms, EMC Research and Research America, to conduct a nasty telephone “push poll,” blatantly mischaracterizing and demeaning one candidate for Council and painting rosy pictures of two others.  When our City Attorney challenged the polling firms, Valero Refinery executive Don Wilson admitted that Valero paid for the poll, but neither he nor the polling firms would comply with our demands for more information.”
    • Weekly and daily reporting of details as the smear campaign unfolded:

    I remember the Benicia smear campaign of 2018

    Benicia electoral campaign reform – 2018 is the reason for fundamental reform

    By Roger Straw, January 6, 2020
    Kari Birdseye, Chair, Benicia Planning Commission

    For a quick review of the nasty campaign against my friend Kari Birdseye, just search the Benicia Independent for “birdseye.”

    Kari ran for City Council in 2018 in a field of 4, competing for 2 seats on Council.  Only she didn’t just run against her opponents.  She ran against a $200,000-plus smear campaign orchestrated by Benicia Valero Refinery and its friends in organized labor.

    The three major candidates’ campaigns spent less than $30,000 each, while Valero saturated our phone lines, mailboxes, newspapers and social media with misinformation and ugly photos.

    All four candidates came out in opposition to Valero’s big-money dirty tactics.

    Shortly after the election, almost exactly a year ago, the Benicia City Council decided – unanimously – to do something about dirty campaigns like the 2018 election.  As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle on January 14, 2019:

    “Valero spent $200,000 in last year’s Benicia city council election to help elect two candidates who were less critical of the company than others. That’s created tension between the oil refiner and the city, leading people to question how much influence Valero should have in local politics. On Tuesday Benicia will discuss the possibility of new campaign finance laws that could limit corporate influence in its small town.”

    The Council directed its Open Government Commission (OGC) to consider updates and amendments to the City’s three campaign ordinances.  The OGC appointed a subcommittee which took nearly a year to review a zillion suggestions gathered from you and me – and from Valero (!) and other local businesses and organizations.

    This Tuesday, the Benicia City Council will discuss the report and recommendations of the Open Government Commission.  The City Attorney recommended against some of the recommendations, perhaps with good reason: some are covered by California law, and some could be challenged in court as indefensible.  Others that are not supported should be addressed by Council.

    But note that the heart of the OGC recommendations are recommended by City staff, including the City Attorney, for passage.  [AGENDA & Staff Reports here]

    Council should not forget its unanimous desire for reform following the ugly campaign of 2018.  COUNCIL SHOULD VOTE YES on Tuesday, January 7.


      Benicia electoral campaign reform – report and reflections by Ralph Dennis

      Council to vote this Tuesday, January 7

      Ralph Dennis, Benicia

      On January 7, City Council will discuss and consider recommendations for changes to Benicia’s three campaign ordinances – Chap. 1.36, Voluntary Code of Fair Campaign Practices, Chap. 1.40, Disclosure of Contributions and Expenditures in Candidate and Ballot Measure Elections, and Chap. 1.42, Contribution and Voluntary Spending Limits. Any recommendations adopted by Council would be brought back before Council in a first reading of the ordinance(s) to be amended.

      The recommendations to be considered are the culmination of a process that began almost a year ago when City Council directed its Open Government Commission (OGC) to consider updates and amendments to the three ordinances. Council acted in part due to concerns raised during campaigns in 2018 for two Benicia Council seats. Numerous comments and suggestions for changes were submitted to Benicia city officials following that election season, including almost 60 from local individuals (including Council members), businesses (like Valero), and organizations such as the League of Women Voters.

      The ad hoc committee appointed by the OGC reviewed these comments and suggestions and considered other recommendations on possible changes which arose during its meetings. The committee also heard from an expert on campaign finance law, who shared early on his suggestions on what the committee “could and couldn’t do” based on current laws and Court opinions. In simplified terms, for example, I understood that the committee couldn’t propose limits on expenditures and it couldn’t control content of issue ads. We could consider limits on contributions, plus we could address disclosure requirements for contributions and information funded by PACs, including information appearing through social media platforms.

      In the end, and within the legally defined parameters that exist, the committee identified 12 recommendations to the OGC to update provisions in the three ordinances. The committee also presented two additional recommendations concerning public funding for campaigns and election security measures. The OGC accepted most of the committee’s recommendations and voted to submit them to City Council for adoption. The public funding and election security recommendations were not forwarded by the OGC, upon advice of the City Attorney that the issues were outside the scope of the direction provided to the OGC, and that either would need to be proposed through separate direction from Council.

      The Staff Report presented to Council for the January 7 discussion incorporates most of the recommendations that originated from the ad hoc committee. Of those, the City Attorney recommends not adopting some of proposed changes and offers no comment on others. The proposed changes not supported by the City Attorney are because either the issue is already state law or cannot be done due to state law or federal Constitutional concerns. Absent persuasive legal advice from another source, it is difficult for me to argue against the City Attorney where he recommends not to adopt a proposed change. It seems to make sense (except for one, as noted below, relating to disclosures by organizations which endorse local candidates).

      The remaining proposed changes in the January 7 Staff Report which have no comment from the City Attorney came from the Benicia community, presumably surviving the City Attorney’s legal review for their viability as an ordinance provision, and therefore should be strongly supported and adopted by Council. In particular, the three push-poll related changes to Chap. 1.40 help address specific concerns raised about polls taken in Benicia during the 2018 Benicia elections. In my mind, adding this language in Benicia’s campaign ordinances is the big takeaway from this review process. The updates requiring candidates to disclose their top three donors, that the ordinances apply to recalls and initiatives, and adding the option for a second public forum earlier in the election season, were also strongly supported by public comments submitted and should be adopted by Council.

      The two additional recommendations on public funding of campaigns and election security should have been forwarded to the Council as well for consideration. As recommended by the ad hoc committee, Council should direct a review of (a) whether Benicia should consider public funding of campaigns, (b) examples of other municipalities that have enacted publicly funded campaigns, and (c) the pros and cons of such an ordinance. Council should also adopt a resolution concerning election security for voting processes and tabulation and acknowledging the work performed by the Solano County Asst. Registrar of Voters in this regard.

      Remaining concerns: Are Benicia’s campaign ordinances being updated regarding the use of social media platforms during campaigns? State laws enacted during the past two Legislative sessions may address this need.

      Also, the City Attorney recommends not to adopt the proposed change to Chap. 1.40 requiring membership organizations which endorse a candidate to disclose if the endorsement was voted upon by all of its members and to publish the questions asked of candidates seeking endorsement. He says “it could run afoul of various constitutionally-protected interests.” Council should seek a second opinion on this matter as there may be alternative legal views on the viability of the proposed amendment.

      The proposed amendments to the campaign ordinances presented in the January 7 Staff Report are very much community-based proposals. Each one comes from suggestions submitted by community members. In every sense of the word, these are proposals from the Benicia community and deserve Council support and adoption.


        Benicia electoral campaign reform – E-Alert by Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson

        Do you want clean and fair campaigns?

        Elizabeth Patterson, Benicia Mayor 2007 - present
        Elizabeth Patterson, Benicia Mayor 2007 – present

        This question is asked because an item on the Tuesday agenda is focused on the goal for clean campaigns.

        But while people will say they want clean and fair campaigns, they also need to work at it themselves.  For instance, what are the criteria for determining “clean” and “fair”?  Local government and to a lesser degree state rules require identifying who is paying for what.  But there are limits on what must be disclosed.  These are limits because of federal court decisions.

        It is a pretty fair guess that lots of Facebook postings that are negative and against another candidate are likely to NOT be clean and fair, although legal.

        How did we get here where we hear loud voices (what I mean is lots of mailers, Facebook and other) drowning out issues and character and record?  There used to be a federal FCC Fairness Doctrine.

        The doctrine prohibited personal attacks (yep!).  Provided that broadcast radio and tv must provide equal access (like Fox News or MSNBC?).  In other words, if a candidate was on the air, their opponent would have equal access.

        The Fairness Doctrine was eliminated during the Ronald Reagan presidency because the FCC commissioners (all appointed by the President) felt that there was too much “bashing” of the president.  Libertarians supported the elimination as well as the conservatives.

        So how is that working for us now?  You will probably note that things are much worse because not only are the public air waves (hence the role of government because these are public air waves) and the internet is mostly private with limited federal rules and even fewer state and local rules (lobbyist do earn their keep and have been very successful so far in telling the feds, state and cities “hands off’).

        Back to the basics, since local government is limited by law in terms of restricting the amount of money spent in campaigns (no authority) and limited in disclosure (some, but not good for  “dark money”), the individual voter has a lot of work to do and cannot depend on the feds, state or city to provide “clean and fair’ elections no matter how hard they try.

        One approach that is available to California Cities is partial public funding for candidates in charter cities.  As I understand it, general law cities cannot do this due to a court decision in favor of Howard Jarvis folks – you know, those folks who took away local property tax decisions and gave the decision making to state assembly and senate members (known as Proposition 13) far fewer of them and less accessible to most people.  Neat trick to take local property tax and give the state authority how to spend it.  Probably the idea that local candidates could get public financing versus big spenders is a threat to the Jarvis peoples” influence.  Click here for a PowerPoint presentation by the League of California Cities that explains current 2019 election rules.

        Again, back to the basics.  As I see it the individual has a very large responsibility to read reliable sources such as the League of Women Voters website for positions on various issues, background and so forth.  Be suspicious, very suspicious with negative ads, Facebook stuff and lots of literature with glossy photos and little actual position statements.

        Also, if you care, come to the door when a candidate is on your doorstep.  I can’t tell you how many times I have knocked or rung the door bell, hearing voices inside but no one comes to the door.  If you want a face to face with a candidate wouldn’t you want to take advantage of the knock?

        I have come to the conclusion that many people in local government and who live and work in Benicia do not know what elected official do.  Listing my committees below (which by the way is not up to date on the city website) tells you that I go to a lot of meetings.  But what decisions are made and how do those decisions affect Benicia.  This is a lot for a citizen to understand and follow, but during an election it seems critical to know what that elected person or candidate is doing.

        From the city website this is what you would learn about my duties other than serving as presiding officer of the council meetings and setting the agenda.

              “Elizabeth serves in the following committee:

          • League of California Cities:  Northern Division member and former President.
          • Napa/Solano Area Agency on Aging – provides funds for Meals on Wheels, Fall Prevention, Ombudsman services and much more.
          • Solano Transportation Authority, chair one time – rotates through all cities
          • Solano Water Authority: meets once a year – funding mechanism for projects
          • Solano County Water Agency:  on Executive Committee and Water Policy Subcommittee and Legislative Subcommittee
          • Delta Subcommittee [hasn’t existed for several years]
          • Soltrans Joint Powers Authority – help form and set up, rotate chair with Vallejo mayor
          • Arsenal Investigation & Remediation Committee [done and very successfully]
          • Valero Water Supply Reuse Subcommittee [doesn’t meet]
          • MCE (Marin Clean Energy) – Executive Committee
          • North Bay Watershed Association”

        What would be helpful is a voting record.  Right now there is no way to provide that without painful research meeting by meeting tally.  Maybe this is something the city should do to enhance “clean and fair’ campaigns.

        Other ideas are for the city to provide is a voter guide – not everyone knows to seek out the League of Women Voter’s website and this information could be provided on the city website along with information about how to judge campaign literature, who is paying for what and how to use critical thinking strategy to separate the fluff from the position on real issues.  Click here for specific tools.

        I have wandered around the issue before the council on Tuesday to try and frame what I think we all say we want – clean and fair elections – and the reality of what we can do locally and I think my message is this:

        It is in large part up to you.  Do you homework.  Answer the knock. Use critical thinking tools above to judge candidates.

        A wild card would be to volunteer to check voting records for incumbents, design a canvas questionnaire to get candidate on record for things like climate change, reducing dependence on fossil fuels, housing – how dense and how high?; active transportation – walking and biking – Clean Tech Expo, how to pay for water and waste water infrastructure, cannabis (develop questions so candidates can’t flip flop once in office).  In the end you want to know what the candidate cares about and can they be trusted to get there.

        Don’t believe it when they say there is no difference between politicians.  Grit, ethical and trustworthiness are characteristics of some, but not all.