California Forever gutted at first Solano town hall

[Note from BenIndy: Remember, DECEMBER 14 is the date of Benicia’s town hall meeting. There are apparently only a few tickets left, so if you’d like to attend, don’t delay! Go to the EventBrite page by clicking this link. You can also email California Forever questions in advance of the meeting.]

Vallejo resident Michael Hayes shames California Forever for their tactics during a town hall meeting at the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum on Wednesday. | Chris Riley / Times-Herald.

Speakers interrupt meeting demanding answers

Vallejo Times-Herald, by Daniel Egitto, November 30, 2023

Outbursts, accusations and disdain for provided answers crackled across an emotionally charged town hall about a company’s plan to build a new city in eastern Solano County.

California Forever hosted its first public forum about the proposed project Wednesday at the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum in an attempt to provide residents with more information and answer their concerns.

But if any community members walked away from the night satisfied about the company’s plans, they didn’t say it. Instead, anger at California Forever and its approach to public outreach added fuel to many attendees’ doubts about the company’s promises of economic growth and fears about the harm the project might cause the county.

Benicia resident Michael Hayes accused the company of “doing urban sprawl” and said investors’ money would be better spent improving the Vallejo waterfront.

“You’ve got a bad investment. That’s what this is,” said Hayes. “You’ve got a bad investment, and we’re not going to support – as a shill – support your project. Shame on you!”

Former Vallejo Councilmember Katy Miessner agreed, adding her own concerns about the project’s long-term impact on Solano County’s economy.

“What’s going to happen in 30-40 years in this community when the construction jobs are gone and it’s all built up?” she asked, drawing applause from the audience.

California Forever CEO Jan Sramek disputed these arguments, saying the new city would be limited in scale and provide jobs in industries other than just construction. He also alluded to possible investment in existing cities’ downtowns.

Solano County residents will ultimately decide whether or not the project moves forward. After presenting a first draft of plans for the new city in January, California Forever intends to ask voters to make the project legally possible through a ballot initiative next November.

‘Wrong, wrong, wrong!’

Wednesday’s meeting kicked off with a presentation by Sramek about the project and ways it might benefit people currently living in Solano County. After that, the businessman began answering submitted questions that one of the company’s own employees read aloud off her cellphone.

Sramek asked people to wait until the end of the meeting to ask their own questions in small breakout groups.

The audience, however, had other plans.

Heckling began during Sramek’s presentation, in which the CEO claimed that eastern Solano County, with its plentiful land, low ecological value and limited agriculture, is better suited for development than anywhere else in the Bay Area.

“If we don’t do it here, where are we going to do it? In Suisun Valley? Or in Dixon?” Sramek asked.

Murmurs of “Here!” and “Vallejo!” arose from the audience.

“Somewhere else. Somewhere else. We don’t have to do it here,” one woman said.

Discontent intensified as Sramek discouraged attendees from asking questions during the question-and-answer period. As the presenter began discussing construction workers’ role in the proposed community, a woman began shouting.

“Wrong, wrong, wrong! What about the Native American graves that you are going to be excavating and building on without even consulting us, the Natives of this land?” demanded the speaker, who did not give her name. “We didn’t even get an invite here tonight, and here I am from Solano. My people – where’s the other Natives? We knew nothing about this.”

Sramek promised that his team will do field surveys and consult with Indigenous tribes before building. But the woman and other audience members peppered the CEO with a spate of other questions.

Melissa Mendoza asked how the city will get water without depleting the county’s current water supply. Vallejo resident Phillip Balbuena asked about how promised tech jobs in the new city would contribute to local economies when advancements in artificial intelligence appear poised to eliminate existing jobs.

When Sramek referred to companies’ tendency to “cluster” and bring growth to nearby areas, Vallejo resident Robert Brekke questioned whether that prosperity would extend as far as Vallejo.

“I’m tired of hearing about the ‘cluster’ – and I won’t use the end of that word,” Brekke said. “But you know, you’re talking about clusters, but Vallejo is on the edge of your cluster. You’re aligning yourself with Vacaville and Fairfield.”

Napa resident Irina Rozo, who has worked in Vallejo, took aim at the basic format of the meeting, asking why Sramek was attempting to answer only questions that people had submitted in advance.

“We came from our homes to talk to you personally,” she said. “Here we are! Talk to us, not to the woman standing there.”

Sramek spoke quickly as he answered speakers, who often asked multiple questions at once and argued with his responses. He reiterated that his company has access to its own water resources and insisted that Vallejo and the rest of the county would only stand to gain from new development.

“There’s no world in which our community succeeds and that doesn’t bring more jobs into places like Vallejo,” he said.

Future town halls

California Forever plans to conduct two town halls in all cities in Solano County. The first round of meetings will all take place at 5 p.m. at the following locations:

  • Rio Vista— December 5, Legion Hall at the Memorial Veterans Building.
  • Vacaville— December 6, The Journey Downtown Theatre.
  • Fairfield/Suisun— December 7, Willow Hall at The Fairfield Community Center.
  • Benicia— December 14, Charles P. Stone Hall and Spenger Memorial Garden at the Benicia Historical Museum.
  • Dixon — December 18, Dixon Town Hall at Dixon Olde Vets Hall.

[Ed. note: Benicia’s town hall will actually be taking place from 6pm to 8pm, not 5pm to 7pm.]

Future town halls will look somewhat different from the Vallejo meeting, California Forever confirmed Thursday.

The company will allow people to ask questions directly at the event. More people will also get the opportunity to attend.

The Vallejo town hall advertised itself as requiring people to register in advance and sold out within a day. A large portion of seats Wednesday were empty, however.

Sramek said he had intended to prevent overflow, but many people who registered didn’t show up.

“A lot of people would come out, and then there would have been people who were stuck outside of the doors,” he said. “So we tried to prevent the problem. We tried not to have people drive here and then be turned away at the door.”

California Forever still recommends that people register for future meetings in advance but will accept walk-ins.

In addition to attending town halls, people seeking more information on California Forever’s plans can visit one of the company’s new offices, which opened Thursday in Vallejo and Vacaville.

The offices are located at 537 Georgia Street, Vallejo and 965 Alamo Drive, Vacaville. They are open 10 a.m.–6 p.m.

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