Repost from The Tribune, San Luis Obispo CA [Editor: Significant quote: “Peschong — who has said he supports the Phillips 66 proposal — said Monday that if elected, he would not vote on the project. ‘I would recuse myself because that’s the right thing to do,’ he said in a phone interview.” – RS]
Candidate John Peschong’s firm received money from Phillips 66
By Cynthia Lambert, September 26, 2016, 9:02PM
Before John Peschong was a candidate for San Luis Obispo County supervisor representing the Paso Robles area, his political consulting and public affairs firm received $262,313 from Phillips 66, an oil company with a controversial oil-by-rail plan that’s expected to be appealed to the Board of Supervisors.
Environmental advocates have recently charged that the money is proof that Peschong would not be able to be impartial on the project. But Peschong — who has said he supports the Phillips 66 proposal — said Monday that if elected, he would not vote on the project.
“I would recuse myself because that’s the right thing to do,” he said in a phone interview.
Peschong faces Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin in the Nov.8 election. Both have said they would support Phillips 66’s proposal to modify its Nipomo Mesa refinery to receive crude oil by rail if safety requirements are met, but Martin has expressed concerns about environmental issues and requested the proposal come back to the Paso Robles City Council for an update and review at an October meeting.
“I think it’s worth looking into and taking a second look at,” Martin said Monday. “We have had more incidents on the rails than we had a year ago.”
The Phillips 66 plan is set to return to the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission on Oct.5 for its eighth hearing. Last Thursday, commissioners started to debate various conditions to approve the project but did not reach a decision.
Their decision is likely to be appealed to the Board of Supervisors, which concerns some environmental advocates who worry that should the commission approve the project, the decision would stand if the supervisors reach a 2-2 deadlock.
But assistant county counsel Tim McNulty said that’s not the case. Even if the Planning Commission approves the project and it is appealed, he said, the supervisors would still need three votes to certify the environmental documents and move the project forward.
Two speakers last Thursday either alluded to Peschong or mentioned him by name.
“I want to stress how important your decision is today,” Valerie Love of the Center for Biological Diversity told the commission, adding that one of the supervisor candidates might have to recuse himself. “Please make the right decision now and deny the project.”
Peschong said he made a decision on his own not to vote on the project.
He said he’s been forthright about the fact that his firm has done work for energy and oil-related entities, and he has listed Phillips66 as one of Meridian Pacific’s customers on his Form 700, a statement of economic interests he filed as a supervisor candidate in March.
Peschong said Meridian Pacific had a contract for consulting services with Phillips66 in 2015, which ended in the earlier part of 2016. The firm has worked for the oil company in the state and San Luis Obispo County, including the rail spur project. Peschong did not know how much his firm had received from Phillips66 for work done in 2016.
Phillips 66 listed the payment to Meridian Pacific on a document called “2015 Other Political Giving.” It was the largest such contribution given to a company or an organization on the list by more than $160,000.
Phillips 66 officials did not explain why the payment for consulting services was listed in connection with politically related requests. In an email, company spokesman Dennis Nuss said that Phillips66 contracted with Meridian Pacific until Aug.1.
“Meridian provided public affairs consulting initially through partner John Peschong, and beginning January 2016, with other members of the firm,” Nuss wrote.
To date, Peschong has not received any campaign contributions from Phillips 66, a review of his campaign finance statements show. He did receive $180 from Jim Anderson, maintenance manager at the Nipomo Mesa refinery, earlier this year.
However, Peschong’s income from Phillips66 might not prevent him from voting on the project, as long as that money was not received in the previous 12months.
In addition, California courts have not been consistent in ruling on whether a candidate for public office should recuse himself if he or she has taken a position on a project or issue while campaigning, McNulty said.
“When we bring on a new supervisor, we advise them about this part of the case law and advise them that one of their roles is to sit as a quasi-judicial decider of fact and that there’s a need to be fair and impartial in doing that,” McNulty said.
Still, opponents of the rail project wonder if Peschong would hold to his word.
“The choice of a public official to recuse himself from voting on a project is largely a voluntary matter, meaning that if the theoretical moment arrives when the Phillips66 project comes before the board and Mr. Peschong is on it, he would be free to change his mind and decide there is no appearance of a conflict of interest,” Andrew Christie, director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club, wrote in an email.
“A narrow reading of the statutes on conflict of interest and recusal could support the claim that if the money paid to his firm was not received from Phillips in anticipation of his running for office, there’s no conflict,” he added.
Peschong said that if he’s elected in November, he would retain his ownership in Meridian Pacific but not do any work in San Luis Obispo County.
Repost from the Los Angeles Times [Editor: This is an incredibly entertaining as well as informative article. Recommended reading! – RS]
Will San Luis Obispo County follow the lead of Benicia and ban oil trains, or capitulate to Phillips 66?
By Robin Abcarian, September 24, 2016 2:25PM
There were a couple of light moments Thursday at the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission’s interminable, inconclusive public hearing about whether it should allow the fossil fuel giant Phillips 66 to send crude-oil trains across California to its Santa Maria Refinery.
A local named Gary, one of only four citizens to express support for the project, took the microphone and announced, “Anybody opposed to something because it’s dangerous is my definition of a coward.” As he walked away, the audience, packed with oil train opponents, howled.
“My name is Sherry Lewis,” said the next speaker, “and I come from Cowards Anonymous.”
After several hearings, reams of public comment and a few concessions by Phillips 66, commissioners were finally supposed to put the matter to a vote this week.
Would they approve the construction of a new rail spur and oil transfer operation that would give Phillips the ability to send three new crude-oil trains through California each week, or would they defy their staff, who recommended denial because the project would have significant negative effects, particularly to air quality and sensitive habitats?
Would they disregard their pleading constituents, and the letters that have poured in from cities, teachers and boards of supervisors from San Francisco to Los Angeles asking commissioners to deny the project because those mile-long oil trains bring increased risk to every California community along Union Pacific tracks?
(Not to belabor the point, but if you live, work or study within half a mile of those tracks, you’re in what is known, for emergency planning purposes, as the “blast zone.” Even the mayor of nearby Paso Robles, who has offered lukewarm support for the project, once referred to them as “bomb trains.”)
Last spring, three of five commissioners indicated they were leaning toward approval. But one of them, a local realtor named Jim Irving, now appears to be on the fence.
The regulatory issues around oil trains are complex and somewhat maddening. Local and state governments, for example, have no say over what is carried on railroad tracks, because the federal government regulates interstate commerce. Think of the chaos if individual cities tried to impose rules on railroads.
Even though cities and counties have no control over railroads, they still want assurances that tracks and bridges are safe for the heavy, mile-long trains that carry highly flammable crude oil. We all do, don’t we?
Thursday, Irving asked about the Stenner Creek Trestle, a picturesque, 85-foot-high steel railroad bridge just north of the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus that was built in 1894.
Could Union Pacific reassure the county that the bridge is sound enough to carry those heavy tanker cars? As recently as June, a slow-moving Union Pacific oil train derailed near an elementary school and a water treatment plant on the Columbia River Gorge in Mosier, Ore. That derailment has weighed heavily on people’s minds around here.
“We tried to request documentation from Union Pacific related to the stability of bridges,” county planner Ryan Hostetter told Irving, “and all we got was a form with a checked box that they had inspected.”
“That’s kind of appalling,” said Irving.
These are not idle questions, and they are being faced by communities all over the country.
As my colleague Ralph Vartabedian has reported, some of the nation’s top safety experts believe “the government has misjudged the risk posed by the growing number of crude-oil trains.”
The Mosier train derailment was caused by failing bolts that allowed the tracks to separate. This was particularly worrisome because the tracks had been inspected the previous week.
“For me, that was a game changer,” said Benicia City Councilwoman Christina Strawbridge. “I just don’t think the rail industry has caught up with safety standards.”
On Tuesday, Strawbridge and her colleagues on the Benicia City Council voted 5-0 to deny a project very much like the one under consideration in San Luis Obispo County. This one was proposed by energy behemoth Valero, which owns a refinery in Benicia.
Unlike Phillips’ Santa Maria Refinery, which employs only 120 people full time, Valero is Benicia’s largest employer. The refinery provides nearly 25% of the city’s annual $31 million budget. It has been a good neighbor, said Strawbridge, and charitable.
But she and her colleagues could not put their town at risk. After four years of debate, and a last-minute declaration by the federal Surface Transportation Board that oil companies cannot claim they are exempt from local regulations just because they use the railroads, the council said no to oil trains.
“I’ve gotten a lot of hugs on the street,” Strawbridge told me Friday.
They are well deserved.
Next month, the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission is scheduled, finally, to vote on this thing. After that, the San Luis Obispo Board of Supervisors will weigh in.
The wild card seems to be the board’s one open seat, in District 1, which comprises towns in the more conservative north side of the county. That supervisor has often functioned as a swing vote on the board. Two conservatives are vying for the seat, the aforementioned mayor of Paso Robles, Steve Martin, and John Peschong, a well-known Republican operative whose firm, Meridian Pacific Inc., received $262,000 from Phillips 66 in 2015, according to the oil company’s website.
Maybe the leaders of San Luis Obispo County will look north to the tiny city of Benicia for inspiration. That town, after all, had far more at stake.
They have a chance to do the right thing, not just for their county, but for all of California.