These are hard times for print journalists, reporters and home delivery newspapers. Especially so in Benicia.
On July 6, the Benicia Heraldannounced a cutback in print publication to 3 days per week. And this week I asked the editor of our larger neighbor newspaper, the Vallejo Times-Herald who on their staff is currently covering Benicia and the editor replied, “Nobody is covering Benicia.” The East Bay Times, formerly the Contra Costa Times, quit covering Benicia long ago.
These days, knowing what goes on in Benicia is pretty much a do-it-yourself operation, with amateurs doing the reporting. For the most part, we need to log in to a social network on a computer or subscribe to alerts on a smart phone. It’s hit or miss at best.
The editor of the Vallejo Times-Herald is open to publishing stories about Benicia. In editor Jack Bungart’s words, “We’ll try and pick up what we can.” I take this to mean that we will see official press releases from the Benicia Police or City Hall. Hopefully, they will print stories and press releases authored by citizens, too?
Nick Sestanovich, editor at the Benicia Herald, has been responsive in publishing news generated by citizens, but he has no staff reporters other than himself. He has done a good job covering City Council meetings lately, but he can’t possibly attend the large number of other commissions, organizations and events, not to mention reporting on human interest stories, sorting out the facts regarding local controversies, doing interviews, and following up on investigative leads.
Now that the Herald will only go out on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, the number of Benicia stories will clearly decrease. We haven’t been told whether Nick’s hours will be cut – hopefully not. Will he continue to cover some – if fewer – important events, or, like the Vallejo paper, will he need to rely increasingly on official press releases?
This is important: city press releases don’t begin to approximate the important role of a free press. Nothing against our City staff, but news should be ABOUT the city, not BY the city. Same could be said of citizen initiatives and watchdog activities. Independent reporting is a foundation of American democracy.
The Benicia Independent can’t do it. I’m a one-person operation, and my work here has been and continues to be advocacy on select issues that are important to me, mostly local and mostly on the environment. I report on gun violence and a few other important issues of our times, but I don’t pretend to cover Benicia in the way that a local news periodical can and should.
It’s a sad day when there is next to no one actually reporting on the affairs of our beautiful and interesting, newsworthy town.
Repost from the Vallejo Times-Herald [Editor: Many thanks to Chris Riley for the great graphic image, and to the Vallejo Times-Herald news team for including Valero’s failed oil train proposal in their list of the year’s most significant events. Stopping “Crude by Rail” was actually much more than a big local story – Benicia was in the crosshairs of a US-Canada controversy over the dangerous transport of dirty North American crude oil. This story made national news. Oh, and … it could easily have been ranked 1st in the Times-Herald’s list. – RS]
Candidates, crimes and controversy top local 2016 events
By Richard Freedman, 12/30/16, 7:13 PM PST
A new mayor for the city and a new building for the newspaper. An end to one controversy — Valero’s proposed crude oil rail — and continued discussion of another — Vallejo’s proposed Orcem cement facility.
And a rare election year when two major candidates included Vallejo on their campaign stops.
Inevitably, sad stories surface with the death of a beloved officer and a teen still missing.
What will 2017 bring? Nobody knows. But an eventful 2016 created the following Times-Herald Top 10 news stories.
1. Election brings new mayor, council.
One political era ended and a new one began this November as Vallejo voters elected Councilman Bob Sampayan to serve as the city’s new mayor.
First elected to the Vallejo City Council in 2011, Sampayan replaces the termed-out Osby Davis, who has served as mayor since 2007.
Sampayan cruised to an easy victory during the election receiving about 40 percent of the vote. Planning Commissioner Landis Graden placed second with 31.85 percent, followed by former Vallejo school board trustee Bill Pendergast, who earned about 27.30 percent.
Three familiar faces will be returning to the city council. Councilman Robert McConnell was the top council candidate, as he picked up about 16.42 percent approval from local residents, while Councilwoman Rozzana Verder-Aliga checked in with 1,100 votes behind McConnell, good for second place. Hermie Sunga earned a third term on the city council after picking up 12,824 votes. Sunga served on the city council from 2005 to 2013.
2. Orcem debate rages on all year.
A controversial plan to open a modern deep-water terminal and cement facility in south Vallejo — at the former Sperry Flour Mill site — continued to capture the attention of residents in 2016.
Vallejo Marine Terminal is proposing to re-establish industrial uses on the site through the removal of a deteriorated timber wharf and construction of a modern deep-water terminal, while Orcem Americas seeks to open an industrial facility producing cement.
Orcem would import most of the raw materials it uses via ships docking at the proposed VMT wharf, a 39-acre site at 790 and 800 Derr Avenue, in southwest Vallejo, on the Mare Island Strait.
The year began with a special Vallejo City Council meeting to investigate claims that the Mare Island Straits Economic Development Committee (MISEDC) violated the state’s open meeting law.
The committee — put together by Councilman Jess Malgapo in April 2014 — came under fire from local residents, who have called it a “shadow government.”
MISEDC was comprised of members of private and public economic groups, representatives of state and local elected office, including three Vallejo City Council members: Malgapo, Pippin Dew-Costa, and Rozzana Verder-Aliga.
VMT and Orcem representatives were also on the committee, drawing the ire of some residents who felt the two businesses were gaining unfettered access to council members who will eventually decide the project’s fate,
The council reached a consensus during that meeting that each council member submit his/her recommendations on what to do going forward.
In March, the city’s Architectural Heritage and Landmarks Commission designated six buildings and structures at the location as city landmarks.
While in July, a group of residents, opposed to the VMT/Orcem project, expressed concerns that trash was accumulating at the site. VMT representatives noted that they had changed security coverage at the site from 24 hours to “roaming.”
Many were shocked in September when Andrea Ouse, the city’s community & economic development director, revealed that the city had taken a preliminary position to reject the project.
“The project does not provide enough benefits to mitigate the impact toward the neighborhood,” she said in September.
3. After “Gone Girl” case of previous year, Vallejo teen Pearl Pinson is taken, and still missing.
A year after the bizarre “Gone Girl” kidnapping case captured the nation’s attention, an abduction of a Jesse Bethel High School student once again thrust Vallejo into the spotlight.
On the morning of May 25, 2016, Pearl Pinson, 15, was walking to school when she came into contact with 19-year-old Fernando Castro of Vallejo.
Pinson was last seen at 7 a.m. that day being pulled by Castro in the area of Interstate 780 pedestrian overpass that leads from Home Acres to Taylor Avenue.
She was seen bleeding from the face and yelling for help. When a witness ran to get help, a shot was heard.
Responders found blood and a cellphone on the ground nearby, explained Solano County Sheriff’s Office’s Christine Castillo after the incident. Upon review of the phone, detectives were able to identify Pinson as the victim.
Castro was spotted the next day driving in Los Alamos after an Amber Alert was issued using his vehicle’s description, the sheriff’s department said.
Santa Barbara Sheriff’s deputies chased Castro into a trailer at Rancho Santa Ynez Mobile Estates in Solvang. He then fired multiple shots at deputies, but was killed after fleeing in a pickup truck.
Pinson was not with Castro when he died and remains missing seven months later.
Since then, the pedestrian overpass where Pearl was last seen has been transformed into staging point for further searches with support from the Pinson family.
4. Valero’s crude by rail plan is a no-go in Benicia.
The city of Benicia made large waves in the oil and gas industry in September after unanimously voting to reject the Valero Crude Oil by Rail Project.
The city’s Planning Commission began considering the issue in December of 2012 when the refinery applied for permission to build infrastructure that would bring two 50-car trains a day carrying up to 70,000 barrels of North American crude oil into Benicia.
Benicia’s five-person city council deliberated for four years over Valero’s application for a conditional use permit for a crude oil off-loading facility.
During the process, questions of whether or not Benicia City Council even had jurisdiction over the matter was brought forth, with project proponents claiming the federal government was responsible for regulating rail decisions.
It was ultimately decided by the Surface Transportation Board that the city was within its rights to determine the future of the project in Benicia.
Mayor Elizabeth Patterson and the rest of the council finally reached the decision Sept. 20 to deny Valero’s application.
After numerous postponements, appeals, public comment and environmental reports, it was determined that concerns over health, safety and the project’s effect on local waterways and the environment were too great for Benicia residents.
There was also a discussion that the rejection of the project would lead to expensive litigation as Valero was expected to file a follow-up lawsuit against the city.
Valero attorney John Flynn III sent a letter Oct. 3 threatening legal action after accusing the city of violating multiple laws. However, this issue was ultimately squashed as the San Antonio-based energy cooperation announced in December that it would not to sue the city.
5. Gus Vegas killed, young child survives.
Vallejo’s law enforcement family took a substantial blow earlier this year after a 15-year veteran was shot and killed during a domestic dispute.
Richmond police officer Augustine “Gus” Vegas, 58, was at his Vallejo home in Glen Cove when an argument broke out with Robert Vega, 30, who was in a dating relationship with his daughter.
Vega had taken custody of a 6-year-old child without agreement from the Vegas family, prompting the fatal confrontation.
Vega fled with his child following the shooting, but was taken into custody that same day by Fairfield police.
Vega’s young son was unharmed and was returned to his mother.
Actively involved in the fostering process, Vegas and his wife, Sandra, started the nonprofit organization Foster Greatness to provide for children in foster care.
Following the death of her husband, Sandra has continued to work in the community by acting as a resource for children who need help through difficult home situations.
A memorial service was held at the Richmond Memorial Auditorium a few days after Vegas’ death, drawing widespread support from fellow officers and members of the public who were familiar with Vegas’ work in the community outside of law enforcement.
Vega has since entered a plea of not guilty by way of insanity. He is scheduled to appear in court May 3 for a jury trial.
If convicted of all charges, Vega faces a maximum sentence of 50 years to life.
6. Sanders, Clinton each visit Vallejo in heat of historic presidential campaign.
Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders made campaign stops in Vallejo.
Sanders and his “A Future to Believe in Vallejo Rally” arrived on May 18 with an estimated 10,000 supporters crowding the waterfront.
“Any time we have the opportunity to have people visit and experience Vallejo, it is a positive,” said Mayor Osby Davis.
What wasn’t positive was the unpaid bill the Sanders campaign left for the city.
Sanders later gave a speech at Solano Community College in Fairfield to a much smaller audience.
Clinton chose to make her May 7 appearance at the Good Day Cafe with around 20 city leaders.
Vallejo resident Yolanda Jackson said a “good conversation” took place.
Jackson, who serves as executive director and general counsel for the Bar Association of San Francisco, facilitated Clinton’s visit to Vallejo.
“She really felt comfortable here in Vallejo,” Jackson said. “It was really positive.”
Clinton and the assembled leaders discussed criminal justice reform, education, community building and health care, Jackson said.
Others invited to the dialogue included Vice Mayor Rozzanna Verder-Aliga, and Danté Quick, pastor at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church (in Vallejo), and president of Community Democratic Club, Vallejo Police Chief Andrew Bidou, and Vallejo school superintendent Ramona Bishop.
David Crumrine, president of United Democrats of Southern Solano County club, Brenda Crawford, president of the Stonewall Democratic Club of Solano County, GVRD board director Wendell Quigley also sat in on the discussion.
7. Vallejo High placed on accreditation sanctions. Bishop claims “active sabotage.”
The school experienced several setbacks in 2016, most notably the Accrediting Commission for Schools, Western Association of Schools and Colleges placed VHS on accreditation sanctions because the institution “deviates significantly” in one or more areas from established standards.
The commission — the agency that accredits schools from kindergarten through college — released a report stemming from a recent visit to the school, which emphasized safety, student tardiness, and an unkempt campus as major issues.
In response to the report, Vallejo City Unified School District Superintendent Ramona Bishop alleged during a May board meeting that the high school staff and teachers engaged in “active sabotage” of the school’s accreditation process.
“We will be taking on the issue of unprofessional conduct at Vallejo High School,” she said to the board, during that May meeting. “One of the things that occurred was the active sabotage and active unprofessionalism, in some cases. We cannot continue to have that.”
After three months, nearly 40 interviews conducted, and $75,000 of public monies spent, an investigator in October concluded that she could not confirm that Vallejo High School teachers and staff sabotaged the report.
8. St. Pat’s Bruins win state football title.
The St. Patrick-St. Vincent High football team had the ultimate Cinderella season in 2016 as the Bruins went from having a 2-8 record in 2015 to winning the first state championship in Solano County history.
The Bruins season was book-ended by long winning streaks, as they won their first six games of the year, and after losing three straight to league opponents, won seven straight games. The final win was a 29-28 victory over Strathmore High in the 6-A CIF State Championship Bowl at Spartan Stadium in Tulare County.
The win came in the final seconds as St. Pat’s junior Gabriel Fuentes knocked in a 19-yard field goal to give the Bruins the lead. It was their only lead of the game and it held up.
“My mind was racing,” Fuentes told Times-Herald sports editor Matt O’Donnell after the Dec. 17 game. “I told myself I needed to make this. I knew everyone was counting on me. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and I got a chance to make it a great one.”
The Bruins, who also defeated St. Francis, Stellar Prep, Berean Christian, Fort Bragg and Brookside Christian in the postseason, were led by many players, including Tri-County Athletic League Rock Division Offensive Player of the Year, quarterback Mike Pappas. Times-Herald all-area defensive players of the year, Devin Devlin and Marquel Johnson, were also stars for the Bruins, along with Marshel Martin, Drew Gillmore, Akil Edwards and Kailon Johnson-Loud to name a few.
9. Times-Herald moves to what the city hopes is a revitalized downtown.
For only the fourth time in nearly 100 years, the Times-Herald had a change of address, moving from its longtime home on Curtola Parkway to new digs on Virginia Street in downtown Vallejo.
In 1919, Luther Gibson, Kenneth Knight, Leonid Laing and Jerry Motzko, started The Mare Island Employee newspaper in the south Vallejo garage of local businessman Harry Dubnoff at 5th and Lemon streets, but moved the following year to the more centrally located 511 Marin St.
The paper moved to Maryland Street, which later became Curtola Parkway, where it stood until this year, when it moved to 420 Virginia St., into what had been The Dream Center.
Publisher Jim Gleim said there were pragmatic considerations, including consolidating real estate and operations among several regional papers, but, he also said he sees the move as positive.
“This is a wonderful move for the company, staff and the community,” he said. “The single largest request from staff when we began discussing the move — windows. Anyone who has visited us in our (Curtola Parkway) location knows that the only view of the day outside is through the glass of our front door.”
10. Net series shoots downtown across the street, bringing attention, jobs.
In April, a new Selena Gomez-produced Netflix series began filming in Vallejo, using several structures here as backdrop to the story of a girl who commits suicide and then sends accusatory messages to the 13 people she blames for her decision.
The old City Lights building on Virginia Street downtown, where the local power company once resided, was made into a coffee shop where much of the show takes place. A Georgia Street building was transformed into a theater lobby for the project, which also used a site on Mare Island and one in the Santa Rosa area.
“Thirteen Reasons Why,” based on a young-adult novel by Jay Asher, also used many locals as background characters like high school students, parents and coffee shop patrons.
The company’s scouts told local businessman Buck Kamphausen, who owns the Virginia Street building, that they chose Vallejo because they liked the downtown old-town look.
• Faraday proposed for Vallejo
• Bethel’s C.J. Anderson part of Super Bowl champ Broncos
• Drama continues in Vallejo school district.
• Firefighter lawsuit
• Drought continues as cities continue to take action
• Water rate increase in Vallejo shot down by irate customers
Valero addresses Benicia concerns about crude-by-rail project
By Irma Widjojo/Times-Herald staff writer
Published By Times Herald, 03/25/2014
BENICIA – For the first time the public attended an informational meeting Monday about Valero Benicia Refinery’s proposed crude-by-rail infrastructure improvement project.
About 150 people packed the Ironworkers Union Local 378 hall to have questions answered about the controversial project. The meeting was hosted by the Valero’s Community Advisory Panel.
The project was unveiled early last year, but has been delayed pending city’s environmental impact report.
The project seeks to add three rail tracks and an off-loading track on Valero’s property to allow crude oil to be transported into the refinery. Currently, crude oil is delivered into Valero Benicia through pipeline and ships.
During the meeting, officials presented the project to the audience and answered submitted questions.
Many residents have expressed rail-safety and environmental concerns about the project. Company officials contend that the railroad traffic — up to 100 tank cars per day — would not affect the region’s air quality, and safety standards would be met.
Officials also said that the railroad addition would make the refinery more competitive by allowing it to process more discounted North American crude oil.
“It would not increase crude delivery, just make it more flexible,” John Hill, vice president and general manager of the refinery, told the crowd.
Another point of contention was the type of crude oil that would be transported into Benicia by rail.
An opposition group, Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, said the project will allow the delivery of the highly flammable Bakken crude from North Dakota. Concerns also have been raised about the possible use of Canadian tar sands oil, regarded as more polluting than other crudes.
However, officials said there will be no change in the delivered type of crude. They said the refinery can, and will be able to, handle any blend of crude oil as long as it meets density and sulfur requirements for its facility. They did not disqualify Bakken crude as a possible part of a blend.
The California Environmental Quality Act review finds there are a few factors that need mitigation to eliminate impacts, according to the presentation. For example dirt control during construction, avoiding construction during nesting season, storm management plans, and prohibition of crude rail crossing during lunch hour and peak hours.
The city’s draft environmental impact report is due to be released to the public next month. Following that, Valero will invite the public to another meeting.
Monday’s informational meeting left a few people unsatisfied.
Diana Walsh, a Benicia resident since 1998, said she came to the session, “hoping to be reassured.”
However, she said she didn’t find any new information.
“I’m very afraid (of the project),” Walsh said. “All we need is a tiny explosion. … I don’t want to live near that.”
“I wanted to feel relieved. But I think they were dismissing, or minimizing our concerns,” she added.
Jan Cox Golovich, of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, said she was hoping the company would “acknowledge that there are things up in the air.”
The group has launched a website, SafeBenicia.org, and organized events to voice concerns over the project.
Like Walsh, Cox Golovich said the officials did not answer questions to her satisfaction.
“They’re just pushing through the project,” she said. “Have some respect for the community.”
Whatever their sentiment might be, many said they are looking forward to participating in the next meeting after the release of the report draft.