San Francisco Chronicle: How crude-by-rail — and other debates — are censored

Repost from SFGate, Opinion Shop

How crude-by-rail — and other debates — are censored

By Lois Kazakoff, January 2, 2015
Valero seeks to modify its Benicia refinery to bring in two 50-car trains a day of crude oil.
How the crude-by-rail debate is censored… Valero seeks to modify its Benicia refinery to bring in two 50-car trains a day of crude oil. Photo By The Chronicle

When I wrote in November about how the mayor of Benicia was effectively muzzled from speaking about a pending city decision with nationwide importance, I thought the debate was over climate change. Now I learn the real concern is over democracy itself.

My Nov. 18 blog post concerned the City Council’s decision to make public an opinion on whether the mayor should be allowed to speak freely with voters about Valero’s application to convert its Benicia refinery to receive crude from the Baaken Oil Shale by rail. The decision is huge because fracking the crude is only profitable if the oil can reach refineries and the global market. Benicia’s refinery and port are key components to success.

Locally, Benicians and Californians living along the rail lines are fearful of train cars filled with the highly volatile crude rumbling through their communities twice a day. It’s a highly charged dispute that has drawn in Attorney General Kamala Harris, who chastised the city for only studying the effects on Benicia and not the effects along the entire rail line through California.

When the City Council voted to make public the opinion, written by an attorney hired by the city attorney, the decision was Mayor Elizabeth Patterson had overstepped her bounds.

Why? Because local politicians can advocate for new laws, but when they are holding a public hearing or ruling on a permit — acting more like judges than legislators — the permit applicant’s right to appear before an unbiased body trumps the legislator’s right to freely express an opinion.

Peter Scheer, the executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, writes in Sunday’s Insight section that this growing practice of advising City Council members to censor themselves is deleterious not just to political debate over important and engaging local issues but to democracy. By giving City Councils this dual role and then advising them to censor their own speech, we discourage civic participation  on the concerns constituents care about most.