Tag Archives: California Supreme Court

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.

Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson asked to recuse herself from Valero crude-by-rail decision

Repost from The Vallejo Times-Herald
[Editor:  It’s sad that some would try to silence Mayor Patterson since she has carefully avoided coming out publicly or privately against Valero’s project.  The good news here (lemons to lemonade) … the City Attorney’s challenge, once denied, should open the door to EVERY Council member to speak more freely in addressing important issues outside of Council chambers and prior to decisive votes.  More public debate on the part of all on the Council and various Commissions, boards and committees will be good for Benicia.  – RS]

Benicia: Mayor Elizabeth Patterson asked to recuse herself from Valero crude-by-rail decision

Elizabeth Patterson rejects city’s advice, hires attorney
By Tony Burchyns, 10/13/2014

Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson

BENICIA>>Mayor Elizabeth Patterson is claiming that the city is trying to muzzle her on public policy questions related to plans to increase crude oil train deliveries to the Valero refinery.

Patterson revealed to the Times-Herald the city attorney has advised her not to participate “in any way in any city decisions” relating to Valero’s pending permit decision. Patterson also said the city has asked her to refrain from sending out “e-alerts” about the project and related crude-by-rail issues and to not engage in public discussion of the matter.

“I feel the city is trying to muzzle me on my questions and alerting the public on major public policy issues of crude-by-rail, fossil fuels, public safety and environmental air, water and habitat hazards,” Patterson said in an email. She said she has rejected the city’s advice and hired a lawyer to defend herself against what she views as an attack on her free speech rights.

City Attorney Heather Mc Laughlin declined to comment the matter, citing attorney-client privilege. However, Mc Laughlin said a handful of community and City Council members had raised conflict-of-interest concerns about Patterson’s engagement in the public discussion of the controversial project. She wouldn’t say which council members raised concerns.

Council members Alan Schwartzman, Mark Hughes, Christina Strawbridge and Tom Campbell declined to comment.

Valero is seeking permits to build a rail terminal to receive up to 1.4 million gallons of crude oil daily by train. The city is in the process of responding to dozens of comment letters on the initial environmental impact report from residents and state and local agencies.

Patterson, who has served on the City Council since 2003 and as Benicia’s elected mayor since 2007, regularly communicates with residents on a wide variety of issues. In particular, she sends periodic “e-alerts” to people who have asked to be on her email list.

This year, several of those communications have included information regarding the city’s review of Valero’s pending land-use application as well as discussions of public policy issues raised by the proposed increase in oil train traffic.

In March, Patterson – a retired state environmental scientist working part-time on the California Water Plan – wrote a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed encouraging Gov. Jerry Brown to issue an executive order to ensure the state is prepared to deal with “highly flammable and explosive Bakken crude oil from North Dakota coming by rail and water into California.”

In June, she testified with other officials at a legislative oversight hearing in Sacramento about state and local agencies’ preparedness to respond to oil train accidents like last year’s explosive derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people. She didn’t comment at the hearing on the merits of Valero’s project.

In a letter to the city, Patterson’s attorney Diane Fishburn defended the mayor’s right to communicate with her constituents and participate in the public discussion. Patterson disclosed the June 26 letter in response to a recent Times-Herald inquiry about thousands of dollars in legal expenses on her latest campaign finance report.

“The law fully supports the mayor’s complete participation in both the public community discussions and her activities in her role as mayor as well as in any decisions which may come before the council on the project,” Fisburn wrote. She cited a 1975 state Supreme Court ruling that held that the public statements of two Fairfield City Council members opposing a proposed shopping center did not serve to disqualify them from participating in the city’s decision on the project.

“These topics are matters of concern to the civic-minded people of the community, who will naturally exchange views and opinions concerning the desirability of the shopping center with each other and with their elected representatives,” the court wrote at the time. “A councilman 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.”

In that 1975 decision, the court also quoted a 1958 New Jersey Supreme Court ruling that stated “it would be contrary to the basic principles of a free society to disqualify from service in the popular assembly those who had made pre-election commitments of policy on issues involved in the performance of their sworn … duties.”

Fishburn argued Patterson has not made public statements or indicated a specific position on the pending project. “However, even if she had expressed views on the pending Valero permit, it is clear based on (related case law) that this wouldn’t disqualify her from participating in the on-going proceedings and in future City Council decisions in the matter,” Fisburn wrote.