Category Archives: Water rates

Benicia Herald: City Council candidates discuss issues at Chamber of Commerce forum

Repost from the Benicia Herald

City Council candidates discuss issues at Chamber of Commerce forum

By Nick Sestanovich, September 13, 2018
(Left to right) City Council candidates William Emes, Kari Birdseye, Lionel Largaespada and Christina Strawbridge answer questions from the audience at Wednesday’s Candidate’s Night forum. (Photo by Nick Sestanovich)

Viewers of Wednesday’s Candidate’s Night forum, sponsored by the Benicia Chamber of Commerce, had an opportunity to ask questions of the City Council candidates and learn their perspectives on hot-button issues facing the city.

The forum was held in the Council Chambers of City Hall and moderated by James Cooper, the president of the Vallejo Chamber of Commerce. All the candidates were present, including Planning Commission Chair Kari Birdseye, retired carpenter William Emes, Economic Development Chair Lionel Largaespada and former Councilmember Christina Strawbridge. Prior to the forum, audience members wrote down questions on cards, which Cooper read to all the candidates. Below is a sample of the candidates’ answers.

Industrial Safety Ordinance

The candidates were asked their stance on a proposed Industrial Safety Ordinance for the city, which among other things would include a more community-involved approach to safety procedures at the Valero Benicia Refinery and other local industries. A draft ISO went before the council in June, but the council voted to delay the ISO to give Valero more time to address some of the concerns resulting from the 2017 flaring incident.

Birdseye felt the proposal should be reviewed.

“I’m all for communications between our great neighbor, Valero Refinery, and the community at large,” she said. “The heart of the ordinance is better communications and better data on what’s in our air.”

She proposed the ordinance should be renamed the “Community Involvement Ordinance.”

Largaespada made five points. He said his top priority was public safety, the city should have an active climate environmental policy, he supports the installation of more air monitors, the council should be vigilant over the council’s execution of Program 4— the state version of the ISO and he supported the expansion of command centers with every vulnerable entity in town, including Amports and schools.

“We didn’t have to wait for there to be a flaring incident at Valero to take all these actions,” he said. “I assure you as the next councilmember, public safety is what I will think about every day, working with fellow councilmembers and city staff. We will correct and amend our ordinances and our processes along the way.”

Strawbridge said she was concerned about the way the ordinance was presented, namely that she felt the public did not have much oversight and the councilmembers and staff did not have much time to review it.

“I think we need more time to review it,” she said. “I think that it has brought people to the table, which has been really important.”

She noted that the ISO discussion has created opportunities for communication with Valero and suggested people wait and see what the refinery will do in the time given.

Emes felt Valero should be given time to meet the minimum requirements, including installing monitors.

“Over time, my 15 years experience working refineries, they have continually become better,” he said. “It takes time to do this. To demand that it occur instantly in five years is unrealistic given the historic record.”

Water rates

Candidates were asked about the city’s decision to restructure water rates and their views on continued rate increases.

Birdseye noted her family was among those impacted by the water rate increases, and she noted in her experiences going door to door, many residents wanted relief and action. She felt that addressing the city’s “crumbling infrastructure” was the right thing to do.

“We want future generations of Benicians to have access to clean water, and that’s not a god-given right,” she said, citing the incidents of Flint, Mich. and Newark, N.J. as examples of failed leadership resulting in lack of access to clean water.

However, Birdseye felt the city should explore its options and figure out alternatives to rate increases.

Largaespada said he was frustrated by the rates and had been protesting them since 2016 via public comments at council meetings and letters to the editor. He offered a plan for the next council to freeze rates, bring back discounts to those with fixed incomes and extend them to nonprofits such as the Benicia Teen Center, ask for money from state and federal representatives and look at public/private partnerships.

“The reality is Benicia will never have enough money to pay for this,” he said.

Strawbridge said she was the swing vote when the council voted to increase water rates but felt further discussions should be held with residents and advocated freezing the rates to figure out where the city stands with its water and sewer funds. She also suggested developing a water hotline to address the complaints.

Emes felt assistance should be provided to those who need help and the commercial enterprises that use a lot of water should carry their weight.

“My feeling on this sensitive subject is that those in need should get help, and those that can give help should help carry the burden,” he said. “It is that simple.”

Cannabis

The candidates were asked their views on the city’s decision to allow cannabusinesses.

Largaespada rejected assertions that he was a “prohibitionist” or “moralist,” and he accepted the statewide voters’ decision. However, he did not feel the council’s ordinance was well-implemented, particularly the decision to do away with buffers around parks, places of worship or youth centers.

“It is the responsibility of the City Council to ensure that Benicia remains a family-friendly community,” he said. “Those businesses are welcome, but families come first and we will do our best to accommodate the locations that will not come at the expense of the families and children here in Benicia.”

Strawbridge said she felt the decision was made too fast and felt Benicia should have waited to see how cannabis legalization was impacting other communities.

“I have no problem with legalized marijuana,” she said. “I think it’s been helpful, especially for people for medicinal use for people trying to find relief and pain, but I do have a problem with the fit for here in Benicia.”

Strawbridge said she would continue to fight to ensure cannabis is not used by youth.

Emes agreed with Largaespada and felt there should be zones where cannabis is not allowed.

Birdseye, who was on the Planning Commission that recommended a zoning ordinance, said ensuring public safety in the wake of legalization will be a top priority.

“Our chief of police was there every step of the way in legalizing cannabis and bringing cannabis to our community,” she said. “He will ensure that cannabis will not be a safety nuisance. In addition, because we took advantage of the timing of the state in legalizing cannabis, we will have additional funds to enforce cannabis laws and keep it away from our kids and also education in our schools. I felt that was a very valuable part of what we did.”

The televised broadcast of the forum will be shown again at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 26; 10 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 6; and 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 15 on Comcast Channel 27.  [Editor: …and streamed on the City website for local access channel 27.]

    Letter from Larnie Fox: Civility in local political discourse

    We received the following letter to the editor from Larnie Fox, Benicia artist and former director of Arts Benicia

    Civility

    September 11, 2017

    Many citizens are very upset about the hike in water bills and the new water meters. Our bill went up too, and we have a new water meter. I don’t like paying more for water now that we are on a fixed income, but it seemed reasonable and necessary to me, if a bit sudden. I understand that it came as a huge shock to many, and that there were big problems with the rollout of the new meters and that the increase in some people’s bills is apparently not justified by their actual usage.

    I understand why people are angry, and I like the fact that they are civically engaged. However, the tone of the debate has become pretty ugly. I have seen some grandstanding at City Hall meetings, very unkind posts in social media, and personal attacks on the Mayor, Council, and City Staff. During my time directing Arts Benicia, I worked with and came to know many of the people who are now being vilified, and I know that they are without a doubt motivated by a love of Benicia and its citizens, and a deep desire to serve them.

    We see similar angry rants and hateful social media memes in national politics now ~ and I think we can all see how this anger, which may be justified, becomes a barrier to finding solutions. I had hoped that our community was better than that.

    As I wrote last year during the height of the crude by rail controversy: “Let’s keep in mind that we all care deeply about our charming, artistic, innovative little town. Please, let’s all keep civility and respect for the First Amendment, for each other and for our vibrant but frail local democracy at the forefront during this debate. After the issue is settled, let’s all reunite to work towards our common vision: maintaining Benicia as the safe, friendly, livable, economically viable small town in the Bay Area that we all love.”

    Larnie Fox, artist and former director of Arts Benicia

      LETTER SERIES: Larnie Fox – “Leadership Style” on the Benicia City Council

      [Editor: Benicians are expressing themselves in letters to the editor of our local print newspaper, the Benicia Herald. But the Herald doesn’t publish letters in its online editions – and many Benician’s don’t subscribe. We are posting certain letters here for wider distribution. – RS]

      “Leadership Style”

      By Larnie Fox
      October 21, 2016
      Larnie Fox
      Larnie Fox

      Republican mayoral candidate Mark Hughes is running on a platform of changing the “leadership style” on our City Council, and the other council members are supporting him. I’ve been attending City Council meetings and watching them online for the last six years, and I think I know what he means.

      As Mayor, Elizabeth Patterson is constantly trying to lead the Council to be forward-thinking and visionary, and has often been frustrated by the inertia of the current Council.

      During the recent debate over Valero’s crude by rail proposal, Council members, including Mark, appeared to be unhappy with Mayor Elizabeth Patterson’s questioning of Valero’s proposal. Elizabeth was unhappy because Council members and City staff made a concerted effort to stop her from spreading information about the project via the informative email newsletter which she produces at her own expense. She was forced (also at her own expense) to mount a legal defense against those efforts. Personally, I want a mayor who is willing to share information with the public and has opinions on important issues. Other Council members and City staff, (whom I know to be good people and like personally), apparently disagreed with this understanding of the First Amendment.

      The decision on crude by rail should have been a no-brainer after our Planning Commission’s extensive research on the subject, the environmental impact reports, the input from communities and governmental entities across the state including our Attorney General, and the ongoing pattern of explosions, derailments, and spills. Yet, under pressure from Valero, the Council voted for delay. Elizabeth Patterson and Council member Tom Campbell were opposed to the project early on, but the other three were noncommittal about it until the recent explosion in Mosier Oregon convinced Christina Strawbridge. No one wants to be on the losing side, especially right before an election, so we had a unanimous Council opposing the project, thank goodness! Mark Hughes is now running on his record of opposing crude by rail. Clearly, Elizabeth Patterson on the Council and Steve Young on the Planning Commission provided the leadership to finally stop this dangerous proposal.

      The debate over water rates provides another illustration of differing leadership styles. My understanding of the water issue is as follows:

      1. We are in a drought; water is harder to get and more expensive.
      2. The infrastructure is old and needs work. Benicia loses around 25% of its water to pipeline leaks, faulty meters, etc.
      3. The council postponed raising rates to appropriate levels during the Recession.
      4. Our current Mayor is a water-use professional on the State level, and an expert in the field.

      Therefore rates have gone up; more so for the bigger users. Elizabeth led the Council to this action to secure our water supplies and rebuild our old infrastructure, in spite of the fact that it was politically unpopular. Hughes, on the other hand voted against it. Clearly that that was the politically expedient thing to do. Elizabeth could have waited until after the election to do this, but was unwilling to “kick the can down the road” and did the responsible thing.

      Now the Council is considering the “Northern Gateway project” development proposal to build 900 homes on Seeno family land near the industrial park in land zoned for industrial use, without much consideration of the need for additional schools, police, fire or road infrastructure, and no plan for more water. Elizabeth, Steve Young and Tom Campbell are for smart growth and clearly against the proposal as it stands. Hughes recently said repeatedly that when a developer approaches Benicia with an idea we should “throw out a welcome mat” for them. The Council’s style so far has been reactive, one in which they react to proposals piecemeal as they come in, rather than a proactive style, in which Benicia makes plans then finds developers to execute them. Elizabeth and Steve are both planners by profession, Elizabeth at a high-level position with the State Department of Water Resources, and Steve, retired with 30 years experience planning housing and redevelopment. They are both arguing for a proactive approach to planning.

      I have been working actively for the campaigns of Elizabeth Patterson and Steve Young primarily because of these three issues, and also because they would better support the arts.

      Elizabeth’s opponent Mark Hughes is a decent guy, but conservative, Republican, pro-development and pro-corporate; a veteran of PG&E. I feel that it’s crucial for Benicia to finally get a forward-looking, proactive majority on City Council and put the “good ol’ boys” days behind it.

      The local election may have more impact on our lives than the national election, so please do your research and vote, and pay special attention to this race.

      Larnie Fox, former Director of Arts Benicia