California Forever’s PR Problem: A Crisis of Good Faith

Illustration by BenIndy.

Opinion by BenIndy’s Editorial Board, March 13, 2024

It’s now safe to say that the road to California Forever’s new city has become, like Benicia’s own beleaguered roads, an absolute mess. However, the struggling company’s path is marred not by potholes, but its executive staff’s poor ego management, condescending and at times outright offensive talking points, and incredibly cringey public confrontations. This is probably what prompted Chris Rico of Solano Economic Development Corporation to implore those tuning in to a forum hosted by the Progressive Democrats of Benicia last night to focus on the initiative’s content rather than the personalities of those driving it.

Rico’s certainly right on one front – we as a voting public should engage with the proposal’s content in good faith, with open minds and clear eyes – but he’s missing a key ingredient to how good-faith conversations actually happen: intentionally, and with reciprocity. How can we engage with any California Forever and its proposal in good faith when the personalities pushing it consistently resort to bad-faith behaviors – defensiveness, aggression, and gaslighting – when under even the slightest pressure?

Asking tough questions doesn’t make us NIMBYs

We don’t want to underemphasize the financial and emotional cost of California Forever’s ongoing litigation currently impacting multiple families, but that is a topic for another day. For today’s purposes, we are talking about how California Forever interacts with the Solano residents through various means of public participation – town halls, commission or board meetings, and forums.

Topping the list of California Forever’s bad-faith public behaviors would be the strategies it uses to stifle reasonable questions. Before the full text of its initiative was fully released, its representatives insisted that the public just “didn’t get it yet” and all questions and complaints would be addressed in the ballot initiative text. But now that the text has been released and the tough questions remain, its representatives have shifted to insisting that reasonable criticisms of its plan for the new city are a symptom of NIMBYism, and not much more.

Listen. As one panelist pointed out last night, yes, “NIMBYism is alive and well in Solano County.” This is absolutely true, and something worth correcting, aggressively. We do need more affordable homes in California. And we want more affordable homes in Solano County. The state’s Byzantine rules and regs for development are part of the problem.

However, labeling questions and opposition as mere NIMBYism is unfair and intellectually dishonest. Worse still, this line of defense is increasingly registering as a blatant attempt to frame and ultimately chill wider public participation in this conversation – by defining and literally trying to nullify the eligibility of certain participants to speak on the topic. In effect, California Forever’s exec team’s most frequent rebuttal to challenging questions has been something to the effect of, “You don’t get to have an opinion because you have a house and/or privilege.”

Asking tough questions is not a symptom of our privilege

This gaslighting continued at last night’s forum. California’s Director of Planning Gabe Metcalf did neither himself nor his company’s public image any favors when he commented that he knew the Democratic club hosting the forum and the roughly 80 audience members he was speaking to had effectively already made up their minds, but he was there, coming to the club in good faith, on behalf of a project he believed in.

Then he implored the viewers to think of the housing crisis. He asked them to consider the plight of the unhoused. And he said he thought this new town was the solution to these problems.

Then he immediately ceded his moral high ground by dismissing informed opposition as simple NIMBYism, stating, “I know most of you probably own your own homes, so the dis-benefits of this – like there could be more traffic or more people – weigh really large on your minds. But there are a lot of people who don’t have time to go to Democratic clubs, for whom  the current system is not working.” [Emph. added.]

Let’s unpack this, because it illuminates California Forever’s PR problems in three easy swipes. First, Metcalf resorted to California Forever’s standard and increasingly indefensible playground taunt, “You’re all just a buncha NIMBYs!”, as discussed above. Then he dismissed reasonable concerns about infrastructure impacts as superficial, insinuating opponents are more annoyed about getting stuck in traffic jams than interested in housing the unhoused in a structured and sustainable way. Finally, he insulted his Democratic club host, its members, and its guests from the public (it was a public meeting, open and free to all) by suggesting that mere attendance at the very meeting he was also speaking at basically nullified every attendee’s eligibility to participate in the discussion in good faith. Simply because we had made the time to go to watch him speak, we were too privileged to consider those for whom “the current system isn’t working.”

Pause on that, wind it back, repeat it: Metcalf implied that those who attended the forum last night, those taking the time to listen to him speak, were biased by the privilege of having or making time to attend.

Oof.  Just, oof.

Gif by BenIndy, with thanks to OpenAI’s ChatGPT 4.

Solano shows up. Get used to it

The efforts and sacrifices made by community members to participate in one or several events hosted by either California Forever and its primary opposition, the Solano Together coalition, is representative of Solano County’s tremendous passion for active, inclusive public participation in decisions both big and small. And a new city is a BIG decision.

Add to that the fact that we at BenIndy happen to know that many of those watching Metcalf hold court on the topic of their own privilege are retired and living off their pensions, or still working past retirement age. Some have homes, yes, but not all. Some have means, yes, but not all. Overwhelmingly, those in attendance last night are people who don’t have time for meetings like that – instead, they make time. They recognize that their participation in this discussion is important, so they hustle, they sacrifice, and they show up.

But even if that wasn’t true, Metcalf’s characterizations not only failed to acknowledge (let alone address) the complexity of the concerns raised about the new city, they also create an entirely false dichotomy of two dogmas: the altruistic visionaries who want to build a bridge to a future where we don’t have these awful problems of chronic houselessness and worse, and those fusty-dusty NIMBY-types who are simply too steeped in their own privilege to do what is right.

In short, California Forever is trying to turn the conversation away from practical questions to a deeper, moral question: how can we possibly challenge the finer points of California Forever’s proposal when so many are suffering?

In terms of leading and manipulative questions this one is a doozy, but thankfully, there is a great answer.

You can’t trick us

When confronted with this, the panelists representing Solano Together, Bob Berman of the Solano Orderly Growth Committee and Sadie Wilson of the Greenbelt Alliance, responded calmly that Metcalf’s dichotomy was deeply flawed and the same people we’re being scolded for supposedly ignoring in this conversation will, fundamentally, never benefit from California Forever’s proposal. They pointed out that the proposed price point for homes—cited recently by CEO Jan Sramek at around $1 million—places them well beyond the reach of middle and lower-income families, let alone those who are chronically underhoused. Even if that wasn’t true, even if California Forever intended to offer homes at middle- or lower-income price points, the city wouldn’t be habitable for a projected 30 years, yielding effectively zero positive outcomes for one of our state’s most vulnerable populations, present in high quantity today.

Berman and Wilson’s stated issues with the proposal were clear and specific. They referenced the unenforceability of California Forever’s many “voter guarantees” (a story for another day), the failure of California Forever to fully comprehend let alone prepare for infrastructure impacts around, yes, traffic, but also water and other services, and more. Berman and Wilson also stated, repeatedly, that they agreed fully and completely that addressing California’s housing crisis will require land development and systemic change. Their responses were measured and persuasive.

Metcalf’s comments, meanwhile, once more raised the same fundamental doubts about whom California Forever’s project is really serving, and whether the needs of California’s most vulnerable populations are truly being considered or are merely being used as rhetorical devices in service to shareholder profits.

If you’re gonna come for Solano, you best come correct

From the initial land purchases in Eastern Solano to the New York Times exposé and through to the recent Zoom forum, California Forever has not engaged honestly with critics or the broader Solano County community.

For Solano County’s democratic process, it is paramount that opportunities for public participation are conducted in a manner that is inclusive and respectful, appropriately acknowledges the sacrifices of its participants, and prioritizes the substantive over the sensational. Solano County residents are ready to engage with California Forever in good faith, to scrutinize the merits and demerits of its initiative, and weigh its potential impacts on our community and environment with the true and urgent need for solutions to California’s housing crisis.

However, for our engagement to become truly productive, California Forever MUST meet Solano County with sincerity and respect, and desist from over-generalization, hyperbole, and insults. Only then can we hope to navigate the complexities of such a significant proposal, free from the distractions. While it’s true California Forever has had more than its fair share of hecklers, there are many who are waiting to see what the commotion is about.

The burden of proving the proposal’s merits rests wholly on California Forever. Solano is waiting. But it may be too late to course correct.

The opinions above represent those of BenIndy’s editors and no other groups or individuals.