Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson comes under fire, will stand firm

Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson
Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson

Benicia’s Mayor, Elizabeth Patterson, has been accused of a conflict of interest and asked to recuse herself from all comment and action regarding Valero Benicia Refinery’s crude by rail proposal.

Two City Council members, Mark Hughes and Christina Strawbridge, disclosed Tuesday that they initiated the inquiry with Benicia City Attorney Heather McLaughlin, acting on concerns of unnamed constituents that the Mayor is biased.  McLaughlin is said to have advised that California’s Fair Political Practices Commission would not be an appropriate venue to seek advice or action, in that there is clearly no material conflict of interest (financial gain).  McLaughlin then contracted with an outside consulting attorney,  Michael Jenkins, to write an opinion on common law grounds for recusal.

Jenkins’ opinion is inconclusive, but offers case law on bias, and suggests that it would be best for the City if Mayor Patterson would choose to recuse herself and cease all e-alerts and commentary on anything related to the issue.  “…in our opinion, a court likely would find that Mayor Patterson’s oft-expressed skepticism about transportation of crude oil by rail evidences an unacceptable probability of actual bias. The evidence is sufficient to warrant her preclusion from participation in the decision.”

In her defense, Mayor Patterson contracted the services of attorney Diane Fishburn, whose legal opinion, states in summary, “With respect to the application of the common law doctrine of conflict of interest, it is our view…that there is no evidence that you have a personal bias based on either a substantial pecuniary or personal interest in the outcome of the matter. As a public official, you certainly not only have ‘a right but an obligation to discuss issues of vital concern’ to your constituents and to state your ‘views on matters of public importance.'”

Fishburn also wrote a letter to City Attorney Heather McLaughlin, stating even more boldly the Mayor’s freedom of speech in the matter: “We have reviewed the matter with our client, and it is our opinion based on the Supreme Court’s decision in City of Fairfield v. Superior Court of Solano County (1975) 14 Cal.3d 768 that she does not have a common law conflict of interest in this matter, and that she not only has First Amendment rights as a citizen and public official, but she also has the right and duty as an elected official to participate in the public and City discussions regarding this important matter. Equally importantly, she has First amendment rights to communicate freely with her constituents and the public in general on any and all issues of public policy and concern, and any attempt by the City or city officials to curb those rights would be an unlawful restraint of her speech under the U.S. and state Constitutions.”

Mayor Patterson says she will not recuse herself, and will continue to exercise her constitutional freedoms and her responsibilities as Mayor.  In an email, she offered the following comment: “Right.  Seeking rail safety is biased?  Free speech becomes bias even before there is any action before city council?  And having an opinion about public safety, health and welfare is a mind made up?  …The message is that I should not do my job.”

Two local news media have covered this story.  For more see The Benicia Herald and the Vallejo Times-Herald.  For more background see Local Media Coverage.