Stephen Golub Interview with Mayor Steve Young (continued)
By Stephen Golub, March, 2023 (About Steve Golub). Previously appearing in the Benicia Herald, no online presence.
INTERVIEW PART 2 (See also Interview, Part 1)
SG: Benicia recently wrapped up a sometimes contentious process of finalizing and then submitting housing plans to the state, as mandated by state law. What would you like Benicians who haven’t followed the issue closely to better understand about the process and results?
SY: The State has passed a variety of laws recently addressing the housing shortage that is directly tied to things like homelessness, housing affordability, and climate change (through longer commutes as people cannot find housing near jobs). The state has identified the resistance to new housing in suburban locales such as Benicia as being a real problem and have put strict accountability on cities to plan for new housing across income levels and throughout the community. That is what we have attempted to do through the Housing Element process.
SG: Are there any lessons learned from that process? Anything you think could have been done differently, including how this experience might inform future city planning?
SY: We might have been able to start the process earlier and had more time to consider the relative benefits of different sites. With 25% of the City consisting of open space, and all of it off limits to development, our choices were constrained.
SG: Back to Valero: In recent years, Valero has put hundreds of thousands of dollars into political action committees, seeking to influence Benicia’s city council and mayoral elections. What are your thoughts on this?
SY: I have consistently fought against their outsized involvement in our elections. There is NO place for corporate or union involvement in local elections, and the Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling was a terrible one, opening the door to this type of unregulated political spending. Instead of spending hundreds of thousands in each election, and turning much of the community against Valero’s candidates of choice, those dollars could have been spent in so many more productive ways. Hopefully, after the last two elections, they will come to the same conclusion. But I am not holding my breath. This is a fight that, sadly, will probably go on every two years.
SG: More generally, what should the city’s relationship with Valero be? How might we plan to adjust to eventual changes in or cessation of its refinery’s operations, especially in view of climate change, pollution, health or economic factors?
SY: Valero remains the most important company in town, and the largest employer and taxpayer. Since my election, I have been having monthly one on one meetings with their general manager to discuss issues of mutual concern like a possible water reuse project in place of selling them 60% of our raw water. Other topics regularly covered include air monitoring and how they can improve their reporting to the City and community about unplanned flaring and other similar incidents.
SG: Is it time to reconsider an Industrial Safety Ordinance, which the City Council voted down 3-2 in 2018? Do you feel it might strengthen the city’s hand in dealing with issues such as the refinery’s 15 years of undisclosed toxic emissions, which we only learned of last year, or the recent reports of foul odor in certain neighborhoods, including those close to the refinery?
SY: I would want to see that a new ISO would be additive in value. Valero is already highly regulated, a fact I am becoming increasingly aware of through my service on the board of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD). However, BAAQMD can also do a better job as was demonstrated by the egregious, unreported 15 year release of toxic gases by Valero and the four year delay in BAAQMD reporting the issue to the City. But there has been an ISO in Contra Costa County for many years covering the other four Bay Area refineries, and it seems to be working well and effectively without significant pushback from the refineries.
SG: Back to climate change. As a waterside community, Benicia stands to be affected. What plans or actions might the city government initiate to adjust to this reality?
SY: There is no stopping the effects of climate change short of a major decrease in the use of fossil fuels. One of the more immediate effects will be on rising waters which will continue to threaten our wastewater treatment plant, marina, and downtown. And a climate change caused drought has not gone away despite a wet winter. We need to secure our water future, and it can be done with a water reuse project to use recycled waste water for Valero’s industrial purposes while saving our drinking water. If we can pull this off, we can become self sufficient in water.
SG: Like any community, Benicia is not immune to racial justice challenges and related concerns. What is the city doing to address such matters? What else might it do?
SY: Benicia was the first city in Solano County to hire a part time diversity officer and form an advisory group (CURE) to address issues of equity and diversity within the City. as well as addressing community wide concerns like the La Migra “game” held annually at the High School. The Library has also been holding a number of lectures and programs on this topic.
SG: What major challenges do you see Benicia facing in the years to come, above and beyond those we’ve already covered?
SY: How to pay for existing services in a period of high inflation with flat revenues, and how to retain and recruit excellent staff if our salaries are not competitive.
With the departure of Erik Upson, Benicia needs a new City Manager. What is the process for replacing him?
Given the short notice we got about Erik’s retirement, we moved quickly to interview four highly qualified internal candidates before selecting Mario Giuliani to be the interim City Manager. We are hopeful/confident Mario can prove up to the many challenges facing a City Manager and we will be able to remove the interim tag later this year.
SG: I understand that the brush-munching goats are back! Or they soon will be. What is your opinion on the goats? How do folks find out whether and when the goats might come to their neighborhoods?
SY: I, and most all Benicians, love the goats. They are so popular, in fact, that they are becoming more expensive and harder to schedule. Check with the Fire Department for specific information on their locations.
SG: You recently had a rather bad bike accident. Are there any lessons or advice you’d like to share with fellow cyclists?
SY: Follow the rules of the road (I wasn’t), don’t speed and bike carelessly (I was), and always wear a helmet (thankfully, I was). I was very fortunate that my injury was not much worse.
SG: Thanks very much.
See also INTERVIEW, PART 1
Benicia resident Stephen Golub offers excellent perspective on his blog, A Promised Land: Politics. Policy. America as a Developing Country.
To access his other posts or subscribe, please go to his blog site, A Promised Land.