Category Archives: Local Regulation

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.

Important Benicia meeting – Goal-setting needs YOUR voice!

March 25, 2019 – Notice from the City of Benicia

Benicia City Council Special Goal-Setting Meeting
has been scheduled for
March 29 & 30, 2019.

You may view the full agenda for Friday,
March 29 HERE.
You may view the full agenda for Saturday,
March 30 HERE.

The City Council Meeting will be held
Friday, March 29, 2019
at 12:00 PM
and Saturday, March 30, 2019
at 9:00 AM
City of Benicia Library, Dona Benicia Room
150 East “L” Street
Benicia, CA 94510


Bakersfield oil train projects declared dead by county supervisors

Repost from

County supervisors declare end to moot oil project approved in 2014

BY JOHN COX, Jan 22, 2019
One hundred tanker cars formed a mile-long train waiting to be unloaded in this 2014 file photo at the Bakersfield Crude Terminal near Taft. The train carried about 70,000 barrels of oil, or about 3 million gallons. The facility was designed to handle two such trains per day. A similar oil-train terminal was approved in 2014 for the former Big West refinery on Rosedale Highway but never built. JOHN COX / The Californian

A pair of controversial oil projects killed years ago by poor market conditions was finally declared dead last week by the Kern County Board of Supervisors.

The projects, valued at $170 million, were supposed to transform the former Big West refinery on Rosedale Highway, in one case by turning it into a rail terminal that was supposed to take in two mile-long trains, or 150,000 barrels, per day of crude from across the continent. The related project would have upgraded the 67,000-barrel-per-day refinery, which has not operated since 2012.

After the board voted unanimously to approve the project Sept. 9, 2014, the plan came under legal attack by environmental groups that considered it polluting and dangerous. Prior to the vote there was a series of rail accidents in which trains carrying oil from North Dakota derailed and exploded, in one case killing nearly four dozen people in Canada. The Bakersfield project wasn’t limited to receiving only oil from North Dakota, which was considered uniquely volatile.

The environmentalists ultimately prevailed in court and, as part of a settlement released Sept. 19, a judge ordered the board to rescind its approval of the projects. Supervisors did so Tuesday by signing off on a consent-agenda list that included the oil projects.

Refining industry observers have said the projects likely would not have proceeded anyway. When oil prices plummeted in 2014, there was no longer enough operating margin — and apparently still isn’t — to cover the cost of transporting huge amounts of oil across the country. Separately, the company that proposed the project, Houston-based Alon USA, now part of Delek US Holdings Inc., headquartered in Tennessee, opted not to move forward with a broader overhaul of the refinery.

Environmental groups said the projects’ official end ensures local residents won’t be harmed by refining emissions or oil-train explosions.

“Families throughout Kern County can breathe easier knowing that this ill-conceived, extremely dangerous project has been stopped,” Angela Johnson Meszaros, an attorney with the environmental group Earthjustice, said in a news release.