Tag Archives: Benicia City Attorney Heather McLaughlin

Valero Benicia Crude By Rail: No news is, well, a bit of news

By Roger Straw, September 2, 2016
[UPDATE as of Sept. 19, 2016 10AM PDT – still nothing from the STB.]
The Latest …STB logoEvery day, I check the Surface Transportation Board’s website, watching to see if they post a decision on Valero’s end run to delay the proceedings. Nothing yet. [If you go to their website, under E-Library, go to Decisions & Notices, or Filings, and search for “valero” under Case Title.]

Opponents of Valero’s dirty and dangerous proposal are trying to plan for the City Council’s September 20 meeting when Crude By Rail will again be on the agenda, but…

  1. no one knows at this time whether the STB will have issued an advisory or declined to do so, and if so, what the STB advice will be, and
  2.  no one is sure exactly what procedures will guide Council and the public in either case!

The latest guidance from City Attorney Heather McLaughlin is complicated, a bit confusing, and perhaps inconclusive.  In response to Benicia resident Marilyn Bardet’s inquiry, McLaughlin wrote on 8/30:

I am sorry but I have to give you the lawyerly “it depends” answer at this point. It will depend if we get an answer from the STB. If we don’t get an answer, the Council already closed the public comment. They would have to take action to re-open the hearing. If we do get an answer, the Council would have to open the public hearing to allow comment only on the new information from the STB. The Council discussion is a continuance from the last appeal hearing. They specifically continued the item to September 20th.

Then on 8/31, McLaughlin added:

If the STB responds in time for the meeting on the 20th, the Council would open the hearing for comments as it relates to the STB response. Public comments would have to relate to the response. I can imagine a range of public comments along the lines of the STB’s response means the EIR must be redone, or that the EIR is good enough, or that some aspect of it must be redone, or that some permit condition should be applied to address the STB response. As long as comments relate to the STB response, then the comment is ok. Comments on the EIR or permitting that do not relate to the STB response would not fit in since the hearing for general comments has already happened.

Quickie Background…

Last February, after 3 years of study, public and expert comments and lengthy hearings, Benicia’s Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny Valero Crude by Rail. Valero immediately appealed the decision to Benicia’s City Council.

In March, as Valero presented its appeal to the City Council, the refinery’s attorney surprised everyone by asking for a delay so that it could ask the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) for a declaratory order favoring Valero’s proposal. Valero’s petition asks the STB to clarify whether the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act, or ICCTA, prohibits the city from taking rail-related impacts into account while deciding on the project.

In April on a 3-2 vote, ignoring the advice of city manager and staff, the City Council granted Valero’s request for a delay.  As part of the motion, the Council “approved continuing discussion on this item to September 20.”

After a delay of its own, Valero submitted its petition to the STB on May 31. On Jun 10 the STB granted an extension for public comments until July 8.  The STB has received multiple letters pro and con on Valero’s petition. Among the many letters is a response by the City of Benicia to Valero’s petition, in which the City asserts local land use permitting authority.

No one knows if – and when – the STB will give an opinion; and if the STB does weigh in, no one knows to what extent they will support Valero or uphold local land use permitting authority.

For complete background on the Appeal and STB, see the Benicia Independent’s APPEAL PAGE.  For public comments and City transcripts, see the Benicia Independent’s PROJECT REVIEW PAGES.  All things Valero CBR can also be found on the City of Benicia website.


YET ANOTHER Planning Commission meeting – what to expect on Thursday

By Roger Straw, February 11, 2016

A FOURTH PLANNING COMMISSION MEETING has been called for TONIGHT, THURSDAY, FEB. 11, 6:30pm.  Public comment is now closed, but it will be just as important to fill the chamber with concerned residents and regional support.  Be there if you can!  Arrive early to get a seat in Council Chambers.

Tonight, the first portion of the meeting will be given over to City staff and consultants.  According to Community Development Director Christina Ratcliffe, City staff will begin by discussing new materials given to Commissioners last night.  City Attorney Heather McLaughlin, notably absent during Commission procedings to date, was observed midway through the evening Wednesday delivering a huge stack of documents, presumably for Commissioners’ review.  It stands to reason that these documents will have further comments and instructions having to do with federal “preemption.”

City staff will also take time in the opening portion of tonight’s meeting to answer questions put to staff previously during the hearings, to which staff had responded that they would need to “look into it.”

Commissioners will no doubt interact with staff with further questions and clarifications, so it is likely Commissioners will not move into their final deliberations until – anybody’s guess – an hour or two (or three or four) go by.  Those deliberations and final statements are likely to take some time as well.  Director Ratcliffe advised Commissioners to bring their calendars to Thursday’s meeting, in case they need to schedule yet another continuation at a “date certain.”

Benicia City Council to consider rail safety letter to Feds

Repost from The Benicia Herald
[Editor:  Original documents on the City of Benicia’s website:
      – Staff’s Agenda Report
      – Mayor Patterson’s draft letter of support
      – League of Cities letter requesting letters of support & sample letter]

City Council to mull rail safety missive

By Donna Beth Weilenman, April 2, 2015

Mayor Patterson seeks endorsement of letter calling for action to update federal policy on crude oil transport; no conflict seen with pending Valero request

Benicia, California

Mayor Elizabeth Patterson will ask the City Council on Tuesday to endorse a letter supporting the League of California Cities’ call for increased crude-by-rail safety measures.

Christopher McKenzie, the LCC’s executive director, already has sent a letter March 6 on behalf of its board of directors to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony R. Foxx, asking that his department make LCC’s recommendations part of federal policy in governing rail safety.

“The continued increase in the transport of crude oil by rail, combined with recent rail rail accidents involving oil spills and resulting fires, have served to heighten concerns about rail safety among many of our member cities,” McKenzie wrote.

Rail safety, particularly in transport of crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields, has become a growing concern nationwide and elsewhere.

The California Environmental Protection Agency has been presenting a series of forums on the matter, one of which took place March 26 in Crockett, a meeting attended by several Benicia residents who oppose delivery of oil by train.

In another development this week, WesPac Midstream has dropped the crude-by-rail component of its intent to transform a Pacific Gas and Electric tank farm into a regional oil storage site.

In explaining the move Project Manager Art Diefenbach cited uncertainties about prospective changes in regulations of oil shipping by rail, a series of protests and falling crude prices that have made shipping by train less attractive. Should the project be completed, oil would arrive either by ship or pipeline, which Pittsburg Mayor Pete Longmire suggested would make the operation safer and less controversial.

League-of-CA-Cities-LogoIn his letter, McKenzie cited incidents that prompted the LCC to express its own safety concerns and to offer recommendations that might reduce the potential for accidents.

“Specifically, two derailments accompanied by fires involving unit trains (100 or more tank cars) carrying crude oil in West Virginia and in Ontario, Canada, earlier this month have greatly increased public anxiety about what steps the relevant federal regulatory agencies are taking to improve rail safety and on what timetable,” he wrote.

He said the LCC wanted to make three points: First, that improvements that are required of participating industries should be mandates, not recommendations; second, that the mandates should have a hard deadline for implementation; and third, that the Department of Transportation should include the LCC’s recommendations in the final rule for Safe Transportation of Crude Oil and Flammable Materials.

McKenzie wrote that the LCC wants all federal agencies involved in regulating crude-by-rail shipments to require electronically controlled braking systems on trains carrying the sweeter crude from the North Dakota Bakken oil fields, and to set a sooner date for phasing out or retrofitting the older DOT-111 tanks.

More federal money should be directed toward training and equipment for first responders who are sent to hazardous materials accidents, he wrote, and how the funding is to be distributed needs to be defined. In addition, trains should have maximum speed limits in all areas.

His letter said the LCC wants the number of tank cars that trigger a California Energy Commission and State Emergency Response Commission report lowered to 20 from 33, which in turn would lower the trigger point from shipments of 1.1 million gallons or more to those of 690,000 gallons or more.

Priority routes for positive train control, a technology that incorporates geopositioning tracking to slow or halt trains automatically to reduce collisions, should be identified, McKenzie wrote, and parking and storage of tank cards need regulating, too.

He further wrote that railroads should be forced to comply with their Individual Voluntary Agreements with the US-DOT, because currently there is no requirement for them to do so. Those pacts involve reducing speed limits for oil trains that use older tank cars and travel through urban areas; determining the safest rail route; increased track inspection; adding enhanced braking systems; improving emergency response plans and training; increasing track inspections; and working with cities and communities to address their concerns about oil transport by train.

“The League of California Cities understands that this area of regulation is largely preempted by federal law,” McKenzie wrote. “That is why we are urging specific and timely action by the federal agencies charged with regulatory oversight in this area. We do not expect that derailments and accidents will cease altogether, but we anticipate that stricter safety standards will reduce their numbers over time.”

The LCC also has supplied member cities with a sample letter patterned after McKenzie’s message, to customize before sending to Foxx.

In a report to Benicia City Council, City Manager Brad Kilger wrote, “The League Executive Director has requested that cities send letters to the appropriate federal rail safety rulemaking authority requesting that these measures be implemented.”

Since the preparation of the letter template, he wrote, the LCC has learned that any decisions on improved safety regulations would be made in the Office of Management and Budget.

“The mayor is requesting that the city send a letter on behalf of the Benicia City Council,” Kilger wrote.

Consideration of the letter won’t conflict with future consideration of a request by Valero Benicia Refinery to extend Union Pacific Railroad tracks onto its property and make other modifications so it can substitute rail delivery for tanker ship delivery of crude oil, a highly contentious proposition that is currently undergoing environmental review.

“In that the city is currently processing the use permit and EIR (environmental Impact Report) for the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project, I asked the city attorney to determine whether sending a letter requesting rail safety improvements would in any way create a due process issue for the city,” Kilger wrote.

He said City Attorney Heather McLaughlin informed him there would be no conflict because the letter doesn’t take any position on the Valero project or the adequacy of the ongoing environmental review.

“The letter simply urges the adoption of more stringent federal standards for the transportation of crude by rail,” Kilger wrote.

If the Council agrees the letter should be sent to Foxx, it would be signed by Patterson as mayor, and copies would be sent to California’s two U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, all members of California’s delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Federal Railroad Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Solano County Board of Supervisors, the Solano Transportation Authority, Kilger, McLaughlin and members of the Council.

The Council will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Council Chamber of City Hall, 250 East L St.

Benicia Mayor responds: Staying the course on public health, safety, welfare

Repost from The Benicia Herald
[Editor:  Benicia’s Mayor Elizabeth Patterson responds that she will stand firm “with zeal, diligence and fidelity to the public interest.”  It would take a book-length treatise to document the near countless ways in which Mayor Patterson has helped move Benicia to embrace a sustainable identity and future.  It would take another book to document the constant drumbeat of opposition she has endured since her campaign for re-election in 2011.  Someone should write those books!  – RS]

Elizabeth Patterson: Staying the course on public health, safety, welfare

November 28, 2014 by Elizabeth Patterson
Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson
Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson

I WOULD LIKE TO RESPOND TO A COUPLE OF recent letters commenting about our city attorney that were published in The Benicia Herald. I personally prefer people to focus on issues and not staff. It should not be about staff, since they work for the City Council.

What was noted in one letter in defense of the city attorney was, in my experience, the extraordinary, passionate and lengthy defense of the city attorney by Vice Mayor Tom Campbell. Keep in mind the issue at hand is my so-called “biased” conflict of interest based on the E-Alerts I send. It is a difficult position for staff when one Council member questions another. Where do you draw the line? What is in the best interest of the city?

Most of my E-Alerts are about community goings-on, events, meeting notices and issues of public interest and concern. I send these e-Alerts when my workload and time allow. The following is what I always have printed at the foot of my E-Alert:

“This site is my responsibility and my discretion including recipients and material. Requests for posting are honored and I encourage readers to share information. An informed society is essential. Material on this site is my personal domain and does not reflect official city policy. Posting material on this site does not indicate bias for future decision making. Use of words and terminology, notice about events, forums and public concerns is not dicta nor determinative for future decisions. The more sunshine on issues, events, happenings and concerns, the better the public is aware of choices so that government is open and accessible to all and not just the few. Public discourse is the path to fair and informed decisions.”

As my attorney has written, “(W)e understand that you have acted in accordance with this statement, and we have not reviewed any email alerts or other communications which suggest otherwise.”

What differs from my attorney’s information and the city attorney’s outside counsel, Mike Jenkins, is that only select emails were sent to Jenkins while my attorney received multiple batches of complete past E-Alerts as well as all current ones. As my attorney wrote, “(Y)ou have requested our guidance on the laws which apply to you as a public official in California with respect to this matter and similar matters which may come before the city in the future. Our firm has many years of experience and expertise with respect to conflict-of-interest issues for public officials in California.

“As mayor, you have taken a leadership role on providing information to the city residents, and speaking out on the health and safety issues raised by the proposal to increase the (Valero crude-by-rail) train deliveries.

“In summary, based on our review of the facts, it is our opinion that you do not have a disqualifying conflict of interest in the Valero matter based on the Political Reform Act (Gov. Code section 81000, et seq.) which is the primary set of statutes governing public official conflicts of interest and which covers financial conflicts of interest. In addition, since the matter does not involve a contract with the city, Government Code section 1090 does not apply.”

My attorney’s opinion discussed the court decisions holding that public officers must exercise their powers with “disinterested skill, zeal, and diligence and primarily for the benefit of the public,” and that “fidelity to the public interest is the primary purpose of conflict of interest laws.” Indeed, public officers are obliged to fulfill their responsibilities with both honesty and loyalty. If they are influenced by any “base and improper considerations” of personal advantage, they violate their oaths of office.

Jenkins’s opinion cited numerous appellate cases about elected officials having personal reasons for acting toward a city employee and other personnel and contract matters of an elected official. These cases are not on point in my case. My E-Alerts are informing the public about issues affecting public health, safety and welfare.

Jenkins cites another case involving a court holding that a planning commissioner was “biased.” This case is distinguished from the Fairfield case because a) it involves an appointed official, not an elected one; and b) the commissioner actually wrote an argument against a project before it came before the elected body.

The California Supreme Court wrote in the Fairfield decision that “(t)hese topics are matters of concern to the civic-minded people of the community, who will naturally exchange views and opinions. . . . A councilman (sic) has not only a right but an obligation to discuss issues of vital concern with his constituents and to state his views of public importance.” The Fairfield decision has not been overturned or revised by the court and remains the law applicable in similar circumstances.

Because my interest is to provide the public information about vital public health, safety and welfare issues, I send, without expressing an opinion on a specific project, information about relevant meetings, including public and quasi-public (Valero) issues and news regarding national, regional and local issues.

Therefore, I will rely on the advice of my attorney, to wit: “Your current course as spelled out in the statement included on your email alerts . . . is certainly consistent with both (court) decisions and prudent under all of the circumstances. Accordingly, we would advise you to stay your current course of engaging in the exchange of information and discussion of the issues and supporting the process for public education and engagement on the issues while avoiding any specific statements of opposition to the pending permit decision and keeping an even-handed approach to your interactions with the public and all others involved in the matter.”

With zeal, diligence and fidelity to the public interest, Elizabeth Patterson

Elizabeth Patterson is the mayor of Benicia.