By Roger Straw, Election Day, November 6, 2018
[Editor: For whatever reason, the City backed off its plan to post the video of the forum, but made DVD copies available to the public on request. This is therefore an official record of the proceedings, uploaded from the DVD by Benicia videographer Constance Beutel. Many thanks, Constance! – R.S.]
Candidates disavow Valero/Labor PAC’s offensive negative phone calls and ads
Below is the recording of the City of Benicia Open Government Commission’s “Final Word” forum held on Saturday, November 3. (Note that there is a lengthy intro with nothing happening. The meeting is called to order at 8:45.)
The Final Word Forum is convened by the City of Benicia Open Government Commission on the Saturday before an election as a means for candidates to address “last minute hit pieces.” (Municipal code ordinance 1.42.110.)
The Benicia Independent has endorsed Kari Birdseye for City Council. For more about Kari, see BirdseyeForBenicia.com.
NOTE SLOW START: The first part of this video shows nothing happening. The meeting is convened at minute 8:45, but nothing much happens until Public Comment, which begins at minute 12:28. Even then, the call for speakers doesn’t come until minute 13:33. To move forward through the video, hover your mouse at bottom and click/drag the little red ball to the right until you reach the minute you want.
Public Comment speakers favoring the Valero/Labor anti-Birdseye PAC run from 13:33 to 33:36. Mr. Versace, who is eventually ejected by police for misbehavior, is called to speak at minute 22:50.
At 33:50 Gigi Giblin leads off a series of speakers critical of the PAC’s hit pieces.
Rules, procedures and housekeeping begins at 51:07.
The CANDIDATE COMMENTS followed by PUBLIC QUESTIONS and CANDIDATE ANSWERS begins at 55:50.
Repost from KQED California Report [Editor: The anonymous Valero spokesperson’s comments quoted here amount to yet another last-minute hit-piece. The letter from which the quotes are taken is malignant with lies, and appears in the online edition of the Vallejo Times-Herald. Read this article to the end for comments by Mayor Patterson and Vice Mayor Young. – R.S.]
State Rejects Benicia’s Bid to Have Political Watchdog Investigate Valero
By Ted Goldberg, Nov 2, 2018
State campaign finance regulators have decided not to launch an investigation into one of the apparent tactics the Valero Energy Corp. may have used in order to influence the Benicia City Council election. The San Antonio-based oil company operates a refinery that’s one of the Solano County city’s largest employers.
City officials last month filed a complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) against the Valero refinery in connection with a series of phone calls made to Benicia residents about the election.
City Attorney Heather McLaughlin alleged that Valero sponsored a so-called push poll that may have involved a questioner laying out negative statements about one of the council candidates the company opposes, and positive ones about two candidates the company sees as allies — but did not disclose it was behind the poll during the calls.
The FPPC said Thursday it would not pursue an enforcement action against Valero.
“The Enforcement Division found insufficient evidence of a violation of the Political Reform Act,” Galena West, the division’s chief, wrote in a letter on Thursday.
The company says it’s not surprised by the FPPC’s decision.
“It only highlights the greater concern that the Mayor and Vice Mayor consistently and inappropriately use their City Council leadership positions and our city resources to advance their agenda against our company,” the refinery said in an open letter Thursday to the city’s residents.
Valero-Backed Group Spends Heavily to Sway Benicia City Council Election
The PAC is pushing to defeat Kari Birdseye, an environmentalist, and is backing Christina Strawbridge and Lionel Largaespada, to candidates the committee sees as Valero backers.
The energy company claims that McLaughlin, Mayor Elizabeth Patterson and Vice Mayor Steve Young inappropriately used city money, time and energy to go after Valero in an effort that supports Birdseye.
“The goal of these political antics is to provide the Mayor with a secure majority vote for a single minded agenda to negatively impact our refinery,” Valero said. “This is just the latest example of the Mayor using bully tactics against our company in her quest to shut down our business,” the company said.
That proposal, called an Industrial Safety Ordinance, failed at the City Council.
Strawbridge and Largaespada do not support the ordinance. The three candidates, along with a fourth candidate, William Emes, are running for two spots on the Council.
McLaughlin, the city attorney, said the city was disappointed with the FPPC’s decision but is still looking into the matter. In fact, city officials still have not been able to confirm what questions were used in the poll, she said.
On Thursday night, the Council directed McLaughlin to get a copy of the questions from the commission and Valero to determine if they violated the city’s clean campaign laws.
One of the firms Valero hired to conduct the poll, EMC, has refused to hand the questions over.
Gary Winuk, a lawyer representing EMC, argued that the poll was conducted in full compliance with federal, state and local laws. EMC does not engage in campaign advertising and the poll was not partisan, Winuk argued in a Oct. 9 letter to the city.
The poll’s purpose was to gather feedback from local voters and the company is not obligated to hand over its questions, according to Winuk.
“Professional polling companies are under no obligation to provide you with the information you requested,” he said.
Mayor Patterson and Vice Mayor Young disagree.
“We are seeking facts to determine if the polling was for or against candidates,” Patterson said.
“We respect freedom of speech even for large, mega-billion-dollar fossil fuel corporations trying to bully and buy council seats.” she said in an email.
“There is no reason why Valero or the polling company should not now agree to our repeated requests to provide a copy to the city,” Young wrote, also in an email Friday.
Almost five months ago, I received an invitation to take part in the great democratic tradition of promoting a neighbor for local city governance. Along with others, I spent limited funds and as much time as I could to talk to folks, organize and campaign. Some of my friends came to join me and others got behind other good neighbors, and the race was on. Two of our neighbors would be elected to our Benicia City Council in November.
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.
Valero went about scaring its workers – those employed by Valero and others who contract for work at the refinery – into believing that my candidate wants to close down the refinery and take away the workers’ livelihood, their jobs. This is far from true, but the tactic resulted in the amassing of a small fortune by Benicia standards, $155,000 in an “Independent Expenditure” fund known as a political action committee (PAC). Unfortunately, this PAC is free to use its massive resources to damage a candidate and to promote other candidates. Under U.S. law, corporations are considered “people” and have been given rights like you and me, to participate with voice – but not with a vote – in our tiny local elections.
Fortunately, Benicia enacted a fair campaign ordinance in 2008, which requires everyone, real people like you and me, and these monstrous shadow “people” like Valero Services Inc., to detail their campaign contributions and expenditures. So in September we were shocked to discover not only how much money the PAC had gathered up, but also detailed descriptions of their new telephone poll and negative digital ads.
Complying fully with Benicia’s law, the PAC submitted names of its contributors (Valero Services at $14,200 and various contracting trade unions at $30,000 each, now totaling $155,000).
Complying fully with Benicia’s law, the PAC submitted a telephone caller script that showed a blatant false attack on my candidate.
Complying fully with Benicia’s law, the PAC submitted a photocopy of a mean digital ad showing my candidate in an unflattering pose.
And as required by law, the City of Benicia posted all of this on its website, and the news went wild.
Incensed letters went to the newspapers and lengthy hot conversations blossomed on social media. ALL of the candidates spoke out against the PAC’s tactics and two candidates returned contributions they’d received from parties to the fund.
In the ensuing month, more money was contributed to the PAC and more was spent. Despite the public criticism, the misleading phone calls and attack ads continue. Going into the final week before the election, the PAC has spent over $58,800 to attack and promote candidates. They have an additional $96,000 which can be spent in the final push this week!
Benicia candidates are required by law to spend less than $30,000 on their campaign. The PAC has five times that amount to buy a seat on Council.
So I’m back to sharing about my recent sojourn in local democracy. I don’t mind competing with neighbors. I’ve participated in local elections before. I enjoy the behind-the-scenes organizing, the competition, the excitement at the end of the race to learn the public’s choices. But it is simply not fair to have to go up against Valero Services Inc. Our local absentee Texas/Caribbean giant has mobilized our unions into a sickening fight to openly tear down one candidate and to champion two others.
The only good news in all this, the only antidote to this illness, is that we, the people, the REAL people, still reserve the right to vote. I don’t care if you are for my candidate, Kari Birdseye, or any of our other Benicia neighbors. EVERYONE who is a real breathing human being needs to ignore the elephant in our room and send in their ballot or show up at the polls on Tuesday, November 6. Everyone needs to vote!