Category Archives: Benicia Open Government Commission

KQED News: Benicia considers strengthening campaign finance ordinance against lies and misinformation

Benicia Considers Proposal for City Hall to Fact-Check Political Ads During Elections

KQED News, by Ted Goldberg, October 18
Valero’s oil refinery in the Solano County city of Benicia. (Craig Miller/KQED)

Benicia lawmakers are considering a proposal that could eventually require the city to fact-check political campaign advertisements — a novel response to alleged election misinformation that could face legal scrutiny.

The ordinance comes after a political action committee funded by Valero, the oil giant that runs a refinery in town, tried to influence voters in the last two city council elections. The company’s involvement in city politics also came as the Valero plant experienced two of the region’s worst refinery accidents in the last four years.

The ordinance was co-authored by Mayor Steve Young, whom the Valero PAC opposed in the last election. He said the committee put out ads that manipulated photos of him and distorted his record.

Now, Young said, the city should consider whether its campaign regulations “can be amended to prohibit digital or voice manipulation of images and whether any lying can be prohibited.”

The PAC, dubbed Working Families for a Strong Benicia, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the 2018 and 2020 city council elections. Both votes revived debate between some city officials and environmentalists on one side, who want more regulations on the refinery, and oil executives and unionized refinery workers on the other, who say they fear the city’s real motivation is to shut the plant down.

In 2018, two candidates backed by the PAC, which is also funded by several labor organizations allied with the refinery, won seats on the Benicia City Council. Another candidate, an environmentalist who was opposed by the committee, lost.

Last year, Young won the mayor’s race despite the PAC’s opposition to his candidacy. The ads said that he was against affordable housing and that he didn’t need a job because he receives a pension from previous local government work.

The mayor said he does want cheaper housing and there’s nothing wrong with receiving a pension. He said Valero’s opposition to him began in 2016, when the Benicia Planning Commission, which Young was a member of, voted to reject the company’s crude-by-rail proposal.

“Steve Young wants to turn Benicia into a place where young families can’t afford to live and work,” one flier stated. “Who would vote against kids playing at the ballpark? Steve Young did,” another one said.

Young and the proposal’s co-author, Councilmember Tom Campbell, said the ads mean the city should do a better job of making sure future elections are fair and honest.

But turning the government into a fact-checking body would be ripe for a legal challenge, according to Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Marymount University professor specializing in election law.

“We know the First Amendment does in fact protect lies,” Levinson said in an interview. “I think this is absolutely open to a legal challenge the second they pass it, if they do.”

“Who decides what’s an embellishment, what’s misleading, what’s just an omission versus what’s actually a lie?” Levinson asked.

Since the 2016 election and the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency, misinformation has become one of the biggest issues in American politics, said Levinson.

“We are tackling a situation where there are more lies and there’s more technology that allows us to lie than for sure the framers every dreamed of,” she added.

At the same time, the local news industry, which traditionally acts like a fact-checking body, has been decimated. Benicia gets some news coverage but is often overshadowed by larger Bay Area cities like San Francisco and Oakland.

“One of the things that keeps me up at night is not just misinformation and disinformation and the fact that people believe it, but the fact that we have a dwindling press corps and particularly in smaller jurisdictions,” Levinson said.

The details over how the city would fact-check political ads has yet to be worked out. The proposal, set to go before the city council on Tuesday, would forward the issue to Benicia’s Open Government Commission, a body that would consider changing the city’s election campaign regulations. The commission would work on new rules and forward them to the city council next April.

Valero fought with the city’s last mayor, Elizabeth Patterson, after she called for more regulations to be placed on the refinery following a May 2017 power outage that led to a major release of toxic sulfur dioxide and prompted emergency shelter-in-place orders. Less than two years later, the plant had a series of malfunctions that led to another significant pollution release.

Jason Kaune, the PAC’s treasurer and head of political law at Nielsen Merksamer, a Sacramento-based lobbying firm, declined to comment. Representatives for Valero and unions that supported the committee did not respond to requests for comment.

Benicia Final Forum – Candidates to discuss negative campaigning on Saturday, Oct. 31, 10am

By Roger Straw, October 25, 2020

Send your questions to the candidates now!

Important for readers of the Benicia Independent: The deadline to submit your questions to candidates on the Valero PAC’s attempt to buy our Mayor’s seat and other “hit pieces” is close of business (5pm) on Thursday, October 29.  Send by email to Benicia’s City Attorney Benjamin Stock, at

City of Benicia announcement on Nextdoor, October 24, 2020
City of Benicia Communications
Office of Economic Development, Teri Davena

Candidates’ Forum Scheduled for Saturday, October 31, 10 a.m.

Candidates for the Benicia City Council will have the opportunity to participate in a Candidates’ Forum on Saturday, October 31 at 10 a.m.

All candidates running for Council Member and Mayor in the November 3 election have been invited to attend.

The forum, sponsored by the City of Benicia Open Government Commission, will be broadcasted live on Zoom and on local government Channel 27.

At the forum, voters will have an opportunity to hear candidates discuss any ‘hit pieces’ distributed before the election.

Members of the public are encouraged to send questions relating to ‘hit pieces’ for candidates to answer at the forum to the City Attorney Benjamin Stock, at by close of business on Thursday, October 29.

Please note that the candidates’ forum may be canceled by unanimous decision of the candidates.

City decides NOT to post Final Word forum video- last rebroadcast Monday night 7pm

By Roger Straw, November 5, 2018
[Editor: At around 6pm tonight, City Manager Lorie Tinfow responded to urgent citizen requests to air the video.  She wrote, “We are treating the video of the Candidates Forum on Saturday in the same way we have treated previous videos of this forum when held. We are showing it twice on the cable television station and are making it available on a DVD for those who don’t have cable. If you would like to pick up a DVD tomorrow morning, please contact my office at 707-746-4200 or send me a message. We will make them available for pick up as soon as possible.”  UPDATEOn election day, Nov. 6, the Benicia Independent obtained and posted a copy of the video.  – R.S.]

This afternoon, the City of Benicia pulled back from its original plan to post a video recording of the November 3 meeting of Benicia’s Open Government Commission.  The meeting included a “Final Word” forum, in which candidates for City Council and the public responded to recent campaign “hit pieces.”

All four candidates joined with many residents at the forum in severely criticizing the misleading and untruthful claims made against candidate Kari Birdseye by a Valero/Labor political action committee (PAC).  One anti-Birdseye speaker refused to be civil and had to be escorted out by a Benicia police officer.

The City recorded the meeting, but for unknown reasons has decided NOT to publish the video on its website page of Agendas, Minutes and Videos.

At the time of this writing, you can still catch the City’s final rebroadcast of the meeting at 7pm tonight, Monday, Nov. 5, via live streaming on your computer at Benicia TV, or on your tv at home on Comcast channel 27 or AT&T U-Verse channel 99.

NOTE: On election day, Nov. 6, the Benicia Independent obtained and posted a copy of the video.

Final Word: No one likes the anti-Birdseye PAC’s dirty campaign

by Roger Straw, November 4, 2018
[Editor: See video of the Forum.  – R.S.]

Winners: the Candidates – Losers: Valero & the anti-Birdseye PAC

I think I know now, why the anti-Birdseye PAC was desperate to stop the Benicia Open Government’s “Final Word” forum.  Turns out the forum was an unqualified success for all four candidates and a disaster for Valero and organized labor.

The candidates – every one of them – disavowed the anti-Birdseye smears and misinformation and distanced themselves from the PAC.

There must’ve been a half-dozen speakers who told of lifelong family commitments to organized labor who are now more than dismayed at the PAC’s dirty tactics and deep pocketed interference in Benicia’s democratic process.

Several said big labor “should be ashamed.”

If that wasn’t enough, the PAC trotted 5 or 6 speakers up to start off “Open Comment” period.  That time is usually – and was supposed to be – reserved for comments on anything NOT on the day’s agenda.  But PAC supporters strayed repeatedly into smears and misinformation, thus using the Forum itself for another public “hit piece.”

One PAC supporter presented himself as “the face of the opposition,” and was curbed by the moderator for stepping over the line of civil discourse.  He raised his voice and refused to stop yelling when his time ran out.  He was repeatedly graveled out of order, and finally had to be escorted out by an armed police officer.

The “face of the opposition”?  Not a good moment for organized labor.

Candidate Kari Birdseye was measured and sometimes funny as she addressed the effect of the massive attacks on her character and her intentions.

Candidates Emes, Strawbridge and Largaespada ALL offered her the respect she is due, and clearly stated that the charges being leveled against her in PAC phone calls and advertising are FALSE.

So… can we have an election now?

Actually, it’s not clear sailing yet.  There are two days left, the PAC still has a lot of money and I don’t think they will clean up their act.  But I bet there will be a few working families no longer willing to go out for the PAC to knock on doors.

The Final Word Forum will be re-aired on Benicia TV on Sunday and Monday evenings Nov. 4 and 5, at 7 PM.  Watch on your tv (Comcast Channel 27, or AT&T U-Verse Channel 99) or you may access the streamed broadcast on Benicia TV on the City’s website.

City staff originally said they would archive the video of the event alongside the 11/3 Open Government agenda.  On Monday Nov. 5, they reversed that plan.  City Manager Lorie Tinfow wrote, “We are treating the video of the Candidates Forum on Saturday in the same way we have treated previous videos of this forum when held. We are showing it twice on the cable television station and are making it available on a DVD for those who don’t have cable. If you would like to pick up a DVD tomorrow morning, please contact my office at 707-746-4200 or send me a message. We will make them available for pick up as soon as possible.” On election day, Nov. 6, the Benicia Independent obtained and posted a copy of the video.