Tag Archives: Vallejo Sun

Whistleblower alleges Solano domestic violence victims were refused shelter to make room for a nonprofit executive

Solano nonprofit executive lived in domestic violence safe house rented from city of Fairfield

A SafeQuest advocate said she encountered a lawyer for the organization outside a shuttered safe house in 2021. | Illustration by Tyler Lyn Sorrow.

SafeQuest Solano, the main provider of domestic violence services in Solano County, allowed an executive to live in a shelter rented from the city of Fairfield for $1 a year.

Vallejo Sun, by Scott Morris, June 28, 2023

Cassandra Chanhsy, an advocate who worked for the nonprofit SafeQuest Solano, was doing yardwork outside a Fairfield safe house for victims of domestic violence and rape in early 2021, when she was surprised to see a man walk out. Not only was it unusual to see a man at the safe house, she thought it was empty, as it had been shut down for months. Chanhsy recognized the man as Richard Bruce Paschal Jr., SafeQuest’s business officer, who typically went by his middle name.

“And I’m like, ‘What are you doing here?’” Chanhsy recalled.

“I live here,” he told her.

SafeQuest — which has provided services for victims of domestic violence in Solano County for nearly 40 years — rents the house from the city of Fairfield for $1 per year, according to the city’s contract with the organization. But Chanhsy said she hadn’t worked in the shelter since late 2019, when the organization closed it. Her manager told her and the residents that the shelter was closing because of a plumbing issue, Chanhsy recalled in an interview.

When the Fairfield house closed, Chanhsy and the roughly 10 people who were staying there went to a different safe house in Vallejo. But she occasionally returned to Fairfield as a volunteer when the grass was overgrown or leaves needed raking.

It’s unclear how long Paschal lived at the Fairfield safe house, but three other former SafeQuest employees said they were aware that Paschal lived there. One former employee who requested to remain anonymous said that SafeQuest executive director Mary Anne Branch told her that Paschal was living in the house as part of his compensation. In a brief phone interview, Paschal declined to say whether he ever lived in the house.

An anonymous complaint that was emailed to the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services in May 2022 that the Sun obtained states that he lived there from sometime in the summer of 2020 until March 2021. “No victims were taken in instead,” it states.

Meanwhile, Chanhsy and another victim advocate said the Vallejo shelter was largely empty. One advocate who worked there for a month before she resigned provided documentation that SafeQuest turned away 10 women in that time, saying there was no room when plenty of beds were available.

When operational, the Fairfield house had a capacity of 12 people per night, according to records submitted to the city of Fairfield. An advocate who worked in the Vallejo house said that its capacity was similar. But employees like Chanhsy said those beds sat empty while they worked alone in Vallejo with nothing to do. The organization received hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal and state grant funding, yet a log of late payments obtained by the Sun shows that many employees weren’t paid on time. The records show that the organization at times owed thousands of dollars in back pay and penalties.

The lack of services draws into question a bedrock service for Solano County that governments throughout the county rely on to protect victims of violent crime. SafeQuest has operational agreements to provide advocacy for victims of sexual assault and other services with nearly every police agency in Solano County, the Solano County District Attorney’s Office and Solano County Superior Court.

Millions in funding, few services

Former employees, including Chanhsy, said that the shelters in Fairfield and Vallejo were mostly empty for two years starting in late 2019. Records the organization submitted to the city of Fairfield showed that the safe house there was used very little in 2020 and 2021, even as the city had effectively donated it to the organization for that purpose.

But SafeQuest’s services were particularly necessary in those years as the COVID-19 pandemic drove an increase in domestic violence incidents around the world. A 2021 United Nations report found there was a global “shadow pandemic” of violence against women following stay-at-home-orders. A study by the American Journal of Emergency Medicine reported a spike in domestic violence-related calls to police immediately following lockdown measures in the United States.

According to SafeQuest, there was a 9% increase in instances of domestic violence in Solano County during the first two months of the pandemic. “Meanwhile, shelters, childcare centers, and rape crisis centers are overwhelmed and understaffed,” a 2020 grant application by SafeQuest stated.

The kinds of services SafeQuest is supposed to offer — in particular, emergency housing for people escaping domestic violence and transition services — can also help to prevent homelessness as the region struggles with a crippling shortage of affordable housing.

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Deputy City Manager Mario Giuliani named interim Benicia city manager

Giuliani will replace City Manager Erik Upson who is leaving on March 1 to take a position with a global security firm.

The Vallejo Sun, by Ryan Geller, Feb 14, 2023

BENICIA – The Benicia City Council unanimously appointed Deputy City Manager Mario Giuliani as the city’s interim city manager at a special meeting on Monday night.

Giuliani will replace City Manager Erik Upson who is leaving on March 1 to take a position with a global security firm.

The city is still working on the details of Giuliani’s contract as Benicia’s interim city manager, a position which could lead to the more permanent city manager position after a trial period.

Giuliani has been Benicia’s deputy city manager for two years. Prior to that, he served as the city’s economic development manager for 13 years. Giuliani has lived in Benicia for 30 years, he has worked for Benicia, Walnut Creek and Vallejo parks departments and in the Benicia City attorney’s office.

“So much of a City Manager’s job is about communication, both the ability to convey a message but also to listen.” Giuliani told the Vallejo Sun.

According to Giuliani, a key experience that will inform his approach as city manager is his work on Benicia’s sales tax measures. Measure C, a 1 cent sales tax to provide funding for essential city services, passed in 2014 but Measure R, which would have increased Benicia’s sales tax by three-quarters of a cent to fund roads, failed by a narrow margin in November.

“From that loss it’s important to take stock in the listening piece in communication,” Giuliani said in an email. “There was clearly a sentiment in the community that I missed or failed to properly address. How one accepts accountability in defeat is also a necessary experience and a trait needed for one to be successful.”

In the past, the City Council has filled the city manager position both by recruiting outside candidates as well as drawing from the city’s own ranks – as they did with Eric Upson, who was the city’s police chief prior to his appointment as city manager.

This time, considering the urgency of the city’s current projects and the qualifications of several city staff members, the Council chose to select from internal candidates.

“There are about five or six people who work for the City of Benicia that are very highly qualified, so that’s a blessing and on the other hand… how do you pick one,” Councilmember Tom Campbell told the Vallejo Sun.

The city manager is a difficult position, because the right candidate “has to have good interpersonal and communication skills, but they also have to be able to look at a set of numbers and policies and say this is how the city is going to run,” Campbell said. “Most city managers are really good at one or the other, it’s rare that you see them excel at doing both.”

Upson said that the biggest challenge that the new City Manager will face is balancing revenue with the cost of repairing and upgrading Benicia’s aging infrastructure, such as roads and the city’s water supply and wastewater system. “Unfortunately, it’s this generation that will have to deal with these issues,” Upson said in an email. “The wheels are simply going to come off otherwise.”

Despite the upcoming challenges, Upson said that he feels that he is leaving the city in a good position with a talented staff and a council that works together to address the difficult problems.

Last month, Upson announced that he would retire from his position as city manager just over two years after he was appointed. He accepted an offer from a security firm that recruited him for an international position. He said that the opportunity to travel and a salary that will go farther as his children enter college were the factors that tipped the scales toward the new position.

“You may still see me around as I intend to stay on as a Volunteer Reserve Police Officer, working occasionally to support the Police Department,” Upson said in a statement.

KQED: In Benicia’s City Council Race, the Valero Refinery is on People’s Minds

Now, Benicia doesn’t get a ton of media attention…

Smokestacks and machinery are visible at Valero’s Benicia Refinery, in February 2022. The Bay area plant processes crude oil. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

KQED News, by Alan Montecillo and Maria Esquinca, Oct 19, 2022

The politics of fossil fuels in Benicia’s City Council race

Benicia is home to an oil refinery operated by Valero, which employs hundreds of people and contributes tax revenue totaling an estimated 20% of the city’s general budget.

The company has also played a very active role in local elections. Valero’s political action committee spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2018 and 2020.

Now, with this year’s city council race underway — and residents frustrated over recent controversies at the refinery — Valero’s role in Benicia looms large once again.

GuestScott Morris, reporter for the Vallejo Sun


Valero Refinery looms over Benicia City Council candidates forum

The five candidates seethed over revelations of undisclosed emissions and fretted about the oil giant’s influence in the city’s politics.

Benicia City Council candidates Christina Strawbridge, Lionel Largaespada, William Innes, Terry Scott and Kari Birdseye appeared at a candidates forum at the Benicia Senior Center on Wednesday. Photo: Scott Morris.

The Vallejo Sun, by Scott Morris, October 14, 2022

BENICIA – Like its place in the center of Benicia overlooking its downtown, the Valero Benicia Refinery cast a shadow over a forum for Benicia City Council candidates Wednesday night, where the five candidates seethed over revelations of undisclosed emissions and fretted about the oil giant’s influence in the city’s politics.

The candidates took on other issues as well, in particular disagreeing on a proposed sales tax increase and whether to welcome more cannabis retailers to the city.

The prepared questions from the League of Women Voters of Solano County – which hosted the forum – did not address the refinery’s emissions or influence, but it dominated the questions solicited from the audience. A packed audience at the Benicia Senior Center listened intently to the candidates’ responses for nearly two hours.

Valero’s influence has been felt heavily in the last two election cycles in Benicia. In 2018, a Political Action Committee receiving funding from the company spent heavily on ads attacking planning commissioner Kari Birdseye, who had helped block a Valero proposal to ship crude oil by rail.

Birdseye ultimately lost her first council bid to incumbent Christina Strawbridge and Lionel Largaespada, who are both now running for reelection. Strawbridge then ran for mayor two years later, and once again Valero attacked her opponent, then-Councilmember Steve Young. Young ultimately prevailed in that race, 53%-31%.

This year, Valero has dumped $230,000 into its PAC but had not reported any expenditures for November’s election as of early October, leading to anxiety for some candidates over how and when Valero will spend that money. The candidates’ campaigns have a $34,000 cap on spending, but the PAC does not have that restriction.

Retired executive Terry Scott, who is running for the council a second time after narrowly losing in 2020, credited Young with keeping Valero at bay in this year’s election, saying that if Valero tried to buy Benicia’s elections “that the people in this community are going to rise up, they are no longer going to take this becoming a refinery town.”

But despite the lack of Valero spending so far, Strawbridge said that the current campaign is “as bad as 2020.”

“There has been attack after attack,” Strawbridge said, pointing to posts on social media and saying that she has made two ethics complaints about other candidates to the city. “So I just feel like there’s a lot of desire to say we are running clean campaigns. And I’m afraid we aren’t.”

Another change in the dynamic with Valero was revelations earlier this year that Valero had been spewing thousands of tons of excess pollution from a hydrogen vent for decades. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District first became aware of the issue in 2019, but did not alert the city government or residents until this year, when it sought an abatement order against Valero to correct the violations. Penalties for Valero have yet to be determined.

Largaespada pointed out that determining punishment for Valero is not in the city’s jurisdiction, though it will provide input. “Valero like any business and every business in the community is expected to follow laws, whether they come at a local level, the county or the state,” he said. “With respect to punishment of sorts, that is the jurisdiction of the air board.”

Strawbridge said that Valero had “betrayed” the city, but also chided regulators for not alerting the city to the toxic release.

“It’s not only Valero but the Air District,” she said. “They did not report what they have found as far as the emissions, we still don’t know what the impact that’s going to have on our health and we need more information on that.”

Birdseye and Scott both stressed the need for more monitoring, both in the community and in people’s homes, and said that they want financial penalties from Valero to go to the city to help pay for the cost of such monitoring.

“The fine that they are going to impose which hopefully will run into the millions of dollars to tens of millions of dollars, should come back to our community that should then be used for funding that can be used by every single person in this room to get air filtration systems and monitoring systems in your house,” Scott said.

Birdseye said that the community air monitoring currently in place was limited in terms of the emissions that Valero was found to have been releasing, so the city needed to find a way to have more robust air monitoring. “Right now, we rely on citizens’ Purple Air monitoring stations at our school sites and throughout our community,” she said. “And they pick up just the particulate matter, not the toxic gases, not the toxic compounds that are in our air.”

William “Billy” Innes, a retired educator who joined the race late, had a brief answer for how he would address Valero’s emissions that drew a rebuke from the forum moderator for addressing the other candidates. “Am I planning on doing anything about this? Oh, heck yes, I am. I’m planning on voting for Kari Birdseye and Terry Scott,” he said.

The candidates disagreed most sharply on Measure R, a proposed three-quarter-cent sales tax increase that will also be on the ballot in November, with their responses varying from enthusiastic endorsement to staunch opposition. The measure’s language says the estimated $5 million in annual proceeds would go to road repair, though the tax is a general tax and could be spent on any purpose.

Largaespada said that there are “5 million reasons to vote against Measure R” and argued that between a  statewide gas tax, franchise fees for trash collection and expected revenue growth in the city, it could already allocate $5 million toward roads. “It’s in the budget right now,” he said. “I’m a reasonable person. If staff had said we’re out of money, then yes on R.”

But Largaespada’s current counterpart on the council, Strawbridge, said that Measure R was necessary to maintain Benicia’s streets. “We must pass Measure R,” she said. “Our roads are pathetic and dangerous. It’s going to be less than a penny on the dollar. This is a small investment for maintaining your property values and keeping kids on bikes safe.”

Birdseye agreed with Strawbridge. “If we want better roads, not only for our home values, but for our businesses, for our industrial parks where trucks are banging around and getting broken axles. If we want safe roads, this is the way to do it right now,” she said.

Scott was more measured in his support. “While no one likes new taxes, I support Measure R,” he said. “It is the only way we will be able to finally address the steep cost of road repair maintenance and specific infrastructure.”

Innes bristled at the argument that Measure R would protect homeowners’ property values, pointing out that the tax would have a disproportionate impact on the city’s poorest residents. “The argument I hear on behalf of Measure R is that it will help maintain property values for homeowners,” he said. “I understand that. But is it right to have those who make the least amount of money, minimum wage, have to sustain homeowners’ property rights?”

The candidates also differed on whether to allow new cannabis dispensaries in the city. The only dispensary in the city, STIIIZY, opened a year ago and Young recently said in a Facebook post that it has become the second largest tax producer in the city. But in 2020, a ballot measure found that a majority of Benicia voters did not want more cannabis dispensaries by a vote of 47-53%.

Strawbridge and Largaespada were apprehensive about allowing more dispensaries. Strawbridge said that the city needed more time to understand the impacts of the current dispensary. “We’re hearing a lot of numbers being passed out,” she said. “So far the council has not gotten nor received any information about what the retail cannabis is developing as far as financial support. So I have concerns, because we have been told through our finance director that it’s lower than what they expected.”

Scott said that he would also like to see more information, but touted the tax benefits and said that the current dispensary has not caused any law enforcement issues. Birdseye said that industrial cannabis production has been going well in the city and she would support more retail. Innes said that he thought cannabis businesses were safer to have downtown than bars.