Category Archives: Local elections

ENDORSEMENT: Steve Young for Benicia City Council

City Council elections – we’ve got a great new candidate!

By Roger Straw, Benicia Independent, May 20, 2016

Benicia Planning Commissioner Steve Young, candidate for Benicia City Council
Benicia Planning Commissioner Steve Young, candidate for Benicia City Council

No, this is not me with a “new look.” This is Planning Commissioner Steve Young. Steve is running for City Council this fall. I’m happy to endorse him, and I wholeheartedly recommend him to you.

Steve was thorough and critical in his study of the massive documents associated with Valero’s crude by rail proposal over the last 3 years. He doggedly questioned City staff and consultants as the Planning Commission made its way to a unanimous decision to turn down Valero’s proposal in February. He continues to monitor Valero’s appeal to the City Council. If the issue has not been settled by November, we need Steve there with a strong no vote.

We are all invited to Steve’s Campaign Kickoff party on Friday, May 27, 5:30-9:30pm at Ruszel Woodworks – 2980 Bayshore Road, Benicia, CA 94510. Come meet the candidate and enjoy the company of others who are supporting Steve. Please RSVP here.
, not 4:30pm as previously posted here.)

More info about Steve and his campaign: Also check out Steve on Facebook.

– Benicia Independent Editor, Roger Straw

EDITORIAL: Valero wins one; attorneys wrangle; opponents get testy

By Roger Straw, April 29, 2016

Valero wins one; attorneys wrangle; opponents get testy

Catching up on recent events

RDS_2015-06-21_200pxSorry, I had to take a little break.  When the Benicia City Council voted 3-2 to put off a decision on Valero’s crude by rail proposal (CBR), it was just a bit too much.

I was deeply discouraged by the majority’s need for yet more information.  Three Council members wish to hear from the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) before making the decision whether to permit a rail offloading rack on Valero property – a project that would foul California air and endanger lives and properties from here to the border and beyond, a project that would clearly contribute to the ongoing effects of global warming.

So I was one discouraged 3½ year supposedly-retired volunteer.  I was in no shape last week to send out my Friday newsletter.

Here, as best I can summarize, is news from the last 2 weeks:

Valero wins one

You will recall that Valero appealed the Planning Commission’s unanimous February decision on crude by rail to not certify the environmental report and to deny the land use permit. Then at the Benicia City Council’s opening hearing on the appeal on March 15, Valero surprised everyone by asking for a delay in the proceedings so that it could ask for guidance from the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB).

City staff recommended against Valero’s request, rejecting the proposed delay as unnecessary and risky, given that the City and Valero could end up with a “stale” environmental report that requires yet another time-consuming revision and more hearings.

Opponents also argued against the delay, noting that the request would be carefully framed by Valero in its own favor, submitted for review to an industry-friendly STB, and result in a judgement that would still be subject to final review in a court of law. Opponents also pointed out the possibly that the delay was a Valero political tactic, given that this is an election year with three members of City Council up for re-election.

At the most recent City Council hearing on April 19, contract attorney Bradley Hogin disclosed that he was not involved in the staff decision to recommend against the delay, and that he disagreed with his employers. Given every opportunity by Council members, Hogin argued at length in favor of the delay. During verbal questioning, Council did not give similar opportunity to Hogin’s bosses to argue against the request for delay.

And guess what, 3 members of Council were convinced by the pleasant instruction of their outside attorney Hogin that we would do well to hear from the STB before rushing (3 years into the process) to judgement.

Win one for Valero.  Council will resume consideration in September.

The attorneys wrangle

We are asked to believe that the big issue here after 3 years of environmental review has nothing at all to do with the earth or the health and safety of you, me, our neighbors or the lands and wildlife.

Supposedly, according to Valero’s attorney and contract attorney Hogin, it’s all about “federal preemption.”  Supposedly, our city officials have no legal authority to impose conditions or mitigations or deny a permit in this case.

However, according to California’s Attorney General and environmental attorneys, “federal preemption” does not prohibit City government from making such land use decisions based on local police powers and the legal requirement to protect public health and safety. Federal preemption protects against state and local authorities regulating railroads. A refinery, says our Attorney General, is not a railroad. Go figure.

Anyway, Valero’s attorney has written several letters on preemption and taking issue with the Attorney General. The Attorney General has written several letters, sticking by its argument. Environmental attorneys have written several letters making similar arguments.

In addition to the letters, Valero’s attorney and Mr. Hogin have testified at length under questioning by City Council members. Environmental attorneys have been given only 5 minutes each to speak at hearings, with little or no back and forth questioning from City Council members.

Everyone I have talked to expects this decision to end up in court, whether or not the STB issues a ruling, and regardless of which way they rule.

Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community gets testy

Like me, I suspect, members of our local opposition group, Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community (BSHC) were highly disappointed and discouraged by the Council vote to delay for Valero and the STB.

In interviews and online statements that followed the April 19 Council vote, some BSHC members were quick to presume that the 3 Council members who voted for delay would also support Valero when it comes to a final vote in September.

Of course, a 3-2 vote favoring Valero in September is not the only possible outcome. Some would say that the next 5 months might best be spent respectfully reminding Council members of facts of the case, and encouraging them to make the right decision.

Those of us who have spent countless hours opposing Valero’s dirty and dangerous proposal have known all along that it is an uphill battle, that the odds are against us, that big business prevails all too often against the interests of health, safety and clean air.  But look what happened at our Planning Commission.  There is hope.

It seems to me that the presumption of a negative outcome can only serve to harden Council members’ attitudes and opinions.  But I may be wrong.

Some will continue to argue that Council members should be made to feel the public’s disappointment, that outrage and pessimism is understandable, and that an obvious implication is that unhappy voters will have their say in November.

I’m convinced that hardball politics and small-town respect for decision makers will need to co-exist over the next few months. Come September, we shall see.

San Francisco Chronicle OPINION: Can local legislators speak freely to voters? It depends

Repost from The San Francisco Chronicle, INSIGHT

Can local legislators speak freely to voters? It depends

By Peter Scheer, Friday, January 2, 2015

Local government, Republicans and Democrats agree, is the most democratic (with a small d) form of government. The closer government is to the people, the theory goes, the more accountable it is to voters and the more responsive to the public will. Congress is the most remote, hence least accountable; your local city council is the closest, therefore most attuned to your needs and interests.

Except in California and several other states where elected, local officials can find themselves in trouble for doing exactly what elected local officials are supposed to do. Things like communicating regularly with citizens; staking out clear positions on issues that constituents care about; listening to voters’ complaints about the status quo and promising, if elected (or re-elected), to make specific changes.

These communications are the lifeblood of democracy. They enable voters to make meaningful choices among candidates, while providing elected officials the information they need to represent the people’s interests. The resulting feedback loop between politicians and voters is political expression of the highest order, entitled to the fullest, most robust First Amendment protection.

And yet this paradigm of government accountability is under a cloud of uncertainty.

The cause: legal rulings that force legislative bodies to function like courts when they make decisions that are — to use the applicable legalese — “quasi-judicial” in nature. In such cases, the members of a city council, school board or county board of supervisors must be impartial and unbiased, more like judges than legislators.

What does this mean for a newly elected (or re-elected) city council member? Suppose the council will decide whether to approve expansion of a controversial housing development. If the member told voters during the election that she opposed expansion (because that is what she believed), then she may be forced — on grounds of bias — to abstain from the vote and all deliberations.

The upshot is that her constituents will be disenfranchised, which is no small penalty.

This collateral damage to free speech rights might be tolerable if local officials at least had a clear understanding of when it’s OK to act politically — that is, doing what voters want — and when, instead, they must act as disinterested judges, watching what they say and disregarding what voters say. But the fact is that the distinction between legislative acts and quasi-judicial acts is anything but clear.

Take, again, the real estate example. … If the proposed housing expansion comes before the city council as a zoning code amendment — ostensibly a legal change of general applicability but also necessary for the project to go forward — the council is probably free to proceed in legislative mode, taking politics into account and honoring members’ election promises. On the other hand, if the issue comes up as a vote on an application for a permit or license, the council members probably have to put on their judicial robes (figuratively speaking), ignore what voters say, and exclude from the process those council members who have spoken out on the issue.

The line separating legislative from quasi-judicial decisions is barely discernible to lawyers who practice in the government arena — much less to the amateur politicians who predominate on legislative bodies of cities, counties, school districts and the like.

Moreover, even in cases where the line is ultimately visible, elected officials may have no way of knowing, well in advance of the decision, whether the issue will be presented to the council as a legislative matter or a quasi-judicial matter.

Faced with this uncertainty, many council members do the only safe thing: They censor themselves.

Unsure whether they will have to act like judges on a particular issue, they will act more like judges than politicians on all issues. They will curb their interaction with voters. They will refrain from making political promises. When asked by reporters and voters to comment on a local controversy, they will resort to vague generalities, avoiding specifics at all costs.

The court rulings creating this uncertainty are not new. Some have been on the books for years. What is new is that lawyers representing local governments are relying on these rulings in their advice to local officials. Because their job is to keep their clients out of trouble, the lawyers are warning public officials to curb their comments, and their candor, about local issues.

The result is a cumulative weakening of democracy, and a diminishing of political discourse and debate on the local issues that citizens care most about.

Peter Scheer is the executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.