Category Archives: Valero PAC

Ashton Lyle: Giving future generations a reason to stay in Benicia requires careful planning

Benicia can provide future generations with what they need to thrive – without losing its identity

By Ashton Lyle, June 28, 2023

Portrait of Ashton Lyle
Ashton Lyle, BenIndy contributor.

My cousin just graduated in her small town, complete with a ceremony reminiscent of my own experience at Benicia High School. Her school, with only 63 graduates, exists firmly outside the suburban identity of Benicia – but all the same, as I watched these newly minted young adults striding confidently across the gymnasium floor, I was left considering the shared nature of our small-town identity.

A small town’s character is bound up in its most community-minded individuals, the folks who organize around important collective desires. Whether in California or not, these leaders tend to be parents, motivated by the intense desire to provide opportunities for their children. Such is the case in Benicia, a town whose identity is deeply tied to the high quality of education provided to its children. 

Education is why my parents moved to Benicia, bringing me to my new home in the golden hills for the first time as a five-year-old. This is a common experience amongst young families in Benicia, who are making sacrifices of all types to find homes and enroll their children into the regionally acclaimed schools. This intense drive to provide for children’s success is admirable.

Quality primary education naturally leads to higher education, and in America, university-level instruction often takes one away from one’s hometown. Meaning that for me and many other young people raised here, the reason why I arrived in Benicia became the reason I left. Like many others across the region, this city is designed to send its children away.

This is the story of my upbringing and of many others in the community. Even after I finished my education and returned to the Bay Area, I did not come home. Why was that, and what does it say about the continuity of Benicia’s community?

First, leaving one’s hometown is a privilege not guaranteed by growing up with access to good schools. Many of my classmates have not left their own hometowns, largely for economic reasons, a common experience as between 30% and 50% of young people live with their parents. There is a vicious cycle of stagnation everywhere in America, epitomized by the inability to afford the move to better opportunities, which is difficult to leave behind without generational wealth.

Of course, choosing to continue living in one’s hometown as a young person is a perfectly acceptable choice, especially because Benicia and its surrounding communities have many positive aspects. In addition to the incredible weather, culture, and people, the Bay Area is also notable for its jobs, a consideration that is especially important for young people looking to build financial independence. Even better, these jobs are the type of employment that allows for a future unburdened by concerns about making rent and servicing debt. 

Benicia can evolve to keep its young people while still providing them with the economic possibilities they need to thrive. The town will never be for everyone; some will always be drawn to the big city, and others to rural tranquility. However, I know many of Benicia’s parents want to keep their children close, and it’s worth considering what policy choices could help keep families and the broader community together over the long term.

 Where Benicia falls short in comparison to its neighbors is its ability to offer the same opportunities – in business, leisure, and otherwise – which allow for easy connection to other early-career workers. The problem facing current residents is how to provide essential social and economic possibilities for young people while maintaining Benicia’s identity. 

This intersects in complex ways with the rise of remote work. As office work has become less frequent for many in the professional class since COVID, the value of housing has risen in the areas surrounding major cities, including Benicia. While I believe we need to increase the town’s housing stock, it is also true that in order to compete for the attention of young people looking to make a home within neighboring towns, Benicia must work to maximize what makes it so special. 

Increasing transit routes and service frequency in Benicia could help residents – especially young adults – find and access better social and professional opportunities. | Image by BB&B Business Group.

I see two main areas that would provide increased opportunities for young adults while improving the city’s livability. One is Benicia’s connection and ease of transit to neighboring cities that provide services and experiences incompatible with the nature of small-town life. For example, Vallejo contains many shops and amenities from a movie theatre to big-box retailers that are currently infeasible or out of step with the size of Benicia. This means transit connections should continue to be built out, for example, by further exploring the potential for a 9th St. ferry, building increased bus connections, and allocating funds to better maintain our roads. 

The other avenue would be to double down on what makes Benicia great to begin with – our downtown. The walkable, mixed-used character of downtown, with its intoxicating mix of neighborliness, town events, art galleries, and small businesses, draws visitors and residents alike to the area. The city is looking into expanding mixed-used zoning to areas like the Eastern Gateway, an amendment that I am happy to see passed, as it not only invites the business and social spaces which attract young people but will also expand our tax base. These sustainable developments, which could expand eventually to include the Raley’s and Safeway shopping centers, build on Benicia’s historic character while providing more opportunities for business and community growth.

These new additions can continue the tradition of Benicia’s small-business-focused downtown, while also being free to experiment with new types of buildings and businesses which are better suited to the contemporary remote work city. Co-working spaces, formal and otherwise, would bring people to the Eastern Gateway, incentivizing more services within the new “midtown,” providing an alternative focal point to 1st Street. This would help alleviate some of the parking issues facing Benicia’s downtown, however, the development is also only a short drive away, meaning workers drawn to the area would still be likely to patronize existing businesses and keep the community thriving. By providing additional locations for remote work and social gatherings in town, these new areas incentivize young workers to spend their time in and amongst the community, making our town more engaging for both current and future residents.

Benicia’s First Street already has some stretches that reflect mixed-use development, featuring buildings with ground-floor commercial spaces (usually retail, restaurants and other small businesses) topped by upper-floor residences. | Image uncredited.

The last few years have signaled the start of a new status quo in the nature of small-town life, both built by and increasingly unbound from the concept of a traditional California suburb. Planning a Benicia better suited for the age of remote work and open to increased social and business opportunities is the key to providing a lifetime of opportunities for its children and residents of all ages, allowing the community to stay and grow together.

Author’s Note: In the spirit of full transparency, I am related to the recently appointed Planning Commissioner for the City of Benicia. That said, the opinions expressed in this piece are fully my own, they were not unduly influenced by our relationship, and should not be taken to represent his or anyone else’s opinion.


Ashton Lyle: Benicia can balance Big Oil (and our budget)

[Note from BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian: This is a complicated subject for a lot of Benicia residents. If you scroll past Ashton’s editorial, you can see alternative opinions. Reach out to us at if you would like to add your opinion to our growing body of commentary on the topic.]

Opinion: To check Valero’s influence and beat a budget meltdown, Benicia leaders must walk a fine line

Although this is a tremendous oversimplification, Benicia’s fight for its future can feel like a choice between the frying-pan and the fire. | Canva image by N. Christian.

By Ashton Lyle, June 7, 2023

Portrait of Ashton Lyle
Ashton Lyle, BenIndy contributor.

Benicia will not always be a sleepy town on the edge of the Bay. Like Walnut Creek, Vallejo, and other neighboring cities before us, change is on the horizon. Today, I’m considering what would make the town more livable for its current and future residents.

First among the forces impeding a successful future is the city’s long-term budget crisis, as evidenced by a recent debate in the Benicia Herald. The city council approved its last two budgets with a substantial deficit, an obviously unsustainable situation over the long term. Bret Prebula, the Assistant City Manager, believes that the budget can be balanced. However, if the town wants to maintain the standard of services Benicia residents have come to expect, “new tax revenue is a must.” 

Equally concerning to me is the role that Texas-based Valero Energy Corporation continues to play in our politics. Over the past 55 years, the Valero-owned Benicia refinery has been the dominant economic force in the city. Founded in 1968 by Humble Oil before passing to Exxon and Valero, it has grown to become the town’s largest employer. Its revenue is essential to the city’s finances, as property taxes paid by the refinery have allowed Benicia to develop its services that in turn, attract new residents. In 2014, Valero was responsible for 40% of Benicia’s revenue, and while that number has dived to less than 20% today, the economic weight of Valero has inspired support for pro-refinery politicians in city and mayoral elections. In 2022 Valero funded PAC spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars on the city council race and printed misleading mailers while its Benicia refinery’s toxic emissions exceeded legal limits for more than 20 years, raising questions about whether vital information was being withheld from residents and regulators. All with relative impunity, a recent $1.2 million fine for recent toxic flares aside (an amount which represented a mere 0.01% of Valero’s profits in 2022.)

Meanwhile, the budget is in need of serious balancing. If Benicia is to throw off the weight of oil town politics, development in either residential or commercial sectors is needed if we wish to maintain our beloved services (such as an independent police force, library, and parks) over the long term. One only has to look at the ongoing rehabilitation of Vallejo’s city finances in the past decade to see the potential of a growing residential tax base. Additionally, if we want to finally free Benicia from reliance on a corporate giant, the town needs a larger slice of the growth from the Bay Area’s professional economy to increase property tax revenue and reduce the city’s dependence on income from Valero. In the age of remote work, accessible housing is essential to competing with local towns and bring knowledge workers to Benicia. If we want to ensure that Benicia’s future is not bound by corporate interests, the long-term answer is embracing new neighbors.

Equitable growth of the town’s housing stock is equally necessary to welcome more of Benicia’s workers to join our community full-time. The employees working in the city’s restaurants, shops, and industrial park have earned the option to settle down in the town they work in, but serious work is needed to ensure this possibility. Even after a recent decline in housing prices, Benicia’s median home is priced at $746,000. This means that, under aggressive calculations, a new resident looking to purchase a home would require no less than $175,000 in annual income. How will the workers who make Benicia and its downtown so special afford to live and work here if we do not build more homes?

These problems, undue industrial influence, a budget crunch, and a lack of affordable housing have a simple, but not easy answer. The housing crisis which extends far beyond Benicia’s borders necessitates new construction in our city. Considering where new housing can be built at scale in Benicia leaves residents with limited options. Due to the restrictions of the democratically decided Urban Growth Boundary, which prevents construction north of Lake Herman Road, there is simply not much remaining developable land within city limits. Unfortunately, the area which provides the greatest opportunity for essential housing will lead the city into a complicated alliance. 

Seeno Developers own a large portion of Benicia’s undeveloped land and is now partnering with the city in a “Community-Led Visioning Process” process which aims to develop a Specific Plan for their land, in effect rezoning the currently undeveloped property from industrial to mixed commercial and residential use. As detailed by former Mayor Elizabeth Patterson this process is a reduced version of the coalition of community and experts who wrote Benicia’s last Master Plan. However, it is worth noting that this is only the first step in a multi-year process that will require approval by the expert-led Planning Commission and publicly elected City Council, with multiple opportunities for public comment which began in November of 2022 and will continue until approval, likely several years from now. This “Community-Led Visioning Process” is the beginning of a public and extremely rigorous process.

The seriousness of the approval process is especially important to note because Seeno is considered by many community members to be a bad actor, both in Benicia and the broader Bay Area. In addition to their record of alleged environmental destruction, associations with organized crime, mortgage fraud, and murder threats, they also have a reputation for taking advantage of communities and local governments. In an ideal world, the city would choose to work with a different developer, and any association with the company necessitates an awareness of the risks they pose.

Unfortunately, Seeno has owned the land that is the subject of the North Study Area for over 35 years, and they do not appear interested in selling. The mortgage is likely paid off meaning Seeno is investing very few resources to maintain ownership, and it’s plausible that the value of the land has grown considerably since its purchase. It’s also worth considering the potential for Seeno to invoke California’s builder’s remedy if the city chooses not to engage in good-faith discussion, as Benicia’s housing element is not yet approved by the Department of Housing and Community Development. Even if the goal is to remove Seeno from our city, creating a Specific Plan for the land is the most likely path to success, as attaching a Specific Plan to a property can raise its value to potential buyers, especially if it changes the property from industrial to mixed-use. This increase in valuation could drive Seeno to sell portions if not the entirety of the property to other developers, which has occurred in other Bay Area developments.

These conditions place Benicia residents in a particularly difficult position, in effect forcing a choice between desperately needed housing constructed with an undesirable partner, or the continued risk to Benicia’s services and future budget, not to mention the unmitigated economic and political influence of Valero. Given the revelations of recent years, it is clear that Valero has proven to be one of the worst actors in Benicia community life. Proactively implementing a mixed-used Specific Plan for the North Study Area will create the best opportunity for a sustainable and equitable Benicia. By working to develop the North Study Area in a controlled, sustainable manner, we can increase our tax base, make our housing market more accessible to new families, and reduce corporate influence over Benicia’s politics.

This process should be watched carefully by community members and media outlets to ensure City Council and Planning Commission members are held accountable for the results, especially because Seeno is known to be a difficult partner. Equally important is that Seeno needs to be made responsible for covering the cost of expanding the city’s essential services to the area, as they will be rewarded with millions in additional profit due to the zoning change. Benicia residents must take advantage of their ability to participate in the planning process via public comment at community, planning commission, and city council meetings. Any development is an investment in the future of our town, and the process of writing a Specific Plan deserves extensive thought, public debate, and democratic accountability to effectively plan for the growth of Benicia in the next decade. 

Statewide forces, from the affordability crises to the housing element requirement mean that change is coming to Benicia and to some of its undeveloped land. Failing to act proactively puts the city in danger of Valero’s continued influence, fiscal crisis, or a reduction in city services. Let’s make sure our council members come into any Seeno partnership with eyes open, while also allowing for viable growth that will bring new families to Benicia.

Author’s Note: In the spirit of full transparency, I am related to the recently appointed Planning Commissioner for the City of Benicia. That said, the opinions expressed in this piece are fully my own, they were not unduly influenced by our relationship, and should not be taken to represent his or anyone else’s opinion.


City of Benicia North Study Area (Seeno property)

For current information from the City of Benicia, check out their North Study Area web page,

Benicia voters appear to reject incumbents, Valero in City Council election

Councilmember Lionel Largaespada wrote on Facebook that he called retired executive Terry Scott and planning commissioner Kari Birdseye to congratulate them.

The Vallejo Sun, by Scott Morris, Nov 11, 2022

Retired executive Terry Scott, left, and planning commissioner Kari Birdseye, right, appear to have prevailed in the Benicia City Council race. Photos: Scott Morris.

BENICIA – Benicia voters appear to have ousted incumbent city councilmembers who drew substantial monetary support from oil manufacturer Valero, as two challengers who have been critical of the refinery appear poised to win after Tuesday’s election, according to unofficial results from the Solano County Registrar of voters.

Councilmember Lionel Largaespada wrote on Facebook Thursday night that he called retired executive Terry Scott and planning commissioner Kari Birdseye to congratulate them on their apparent victory in the city council race.

“While there are still ballots to be counted the data indicates their respective leads will hold,” Largaespada wrote. “It has been the greatest honor and privilege to serve the community I love, where I raise my family and I hope they will raise theirs.”

Birdseye, who works as an environmental spokesperson, thanked her opponents in a statement provided to the Sun.

“Although we don’t always agree on policies that are best for our community, Councilmember Largaespada served Benicia well, especially working with frontline community groups,” Birdseye said. “I thank both Lionel and Christina for their dedication to our community and look forward to their continued counsel as I step into this new role.”

Scott has been in first place since the first returns were released Tuesday night. Birdseye was initially in second place, but fell behind Largaespada as more Election Day votes were counted. But as the county continued counting late-arriving vote-by-mail ballots, Birdseye again took second place, and her lead grew to more than 100 votes late Thursday. Incumbent Councilmember Christina Strawbridge has remained in fourth place.

Benicia’s council members are elected by the entire city and the top two vote-getters will be on the council for the next four years.

The race was hotly contested, particularly because of the influence of Valero, the city’s largest employer that spent tens of thousands of dollars campaigning for the incumbents in the last days leading up to Election Day.

Valero previously campaigned for Largaespada and Strawbridge and against Birdseye in 2018. Birdseye narrowly lost that race. When Strawbridge ran for mayor two years later, Valero again supported her, but she lost badly to now-Mayor Steve Young.

This year, it appeared that Valero might sit out the race following a scandal when it was revealed that the refinery had allowed toxic gas to be released from a hydrogen vent for years. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District obtained an abatement order for Valero, but what penalties the refinery may face have yet to be determined.

Valero’s political meddling was a major issue at a candidates forum in October, where Scott and Birdseye called for greater oversight of the refinery in the wake of the emissions scandal.

Altered Valero PAC mailer (added here by the BenIndy, not in the original Vallejo Sun article)

But Valero did not take any action during the campaign until its final weeks, when a political action committee (PAC) receiving funding from Valero sent mailers on behalf of Largaespada and Strawbridge and spent $10,000 on Facebook ads. According to filings available by Tuesday’s election deadline, Valero had spent $89,507.71 supporting Largaespada and Strawbridge.

Largaespada and Strawbridge have both denounced Valero’s attempts to influence the city’s politics. By law, their campaigns cannot coordinate with the activities of Valero’s PAC.

Benicia residents and candidates oppose Valero influence in local election

Benicia residents gather in City Park, hold up signs on sidewalks to protest Valero meddling in local elections

By Roger Straw, November 4, 2022

Roger Straw, The Benicia Independent

Media coverage of this quickly planned protest was excellent. Even better is the video summary by local videographer Constance Beutel. I’ll post links to them all below.

Personal comment: as a longtime Benicia watchdog activist, I am impressed with the new leadership arising in town. They organized this rally in no time, with a turnout of around 75 and better media coverage than any event I can remember over the last 15 years! Kudos!

Video Coverage by Constance Beutel

Valero makes late entry into Benicia City Council race

Vallejo Sun, by Scott Morris, Nov 03, 2022

Texas-based oil manufacturer Valero is making a last-minute push to re-elect incumbent councilmembers Christina Strawbridge and Lionel Largaespada.
Benicians held a rally against oil manufacturer Valero’s influence in city politics on Wednesday, co-organized by Stephen Golub, seen speaking. Photo courtesy Kathy Kerridge.

BENICIA – Texas-based oil manufacturer Valero is making a last-minute push to re-elect incumbent councilmembers Christina Strawbridge and Lionel Largaespada to the Benicia City Council, spending thousands of dollars on mailers and social media ads.

According to expenditure reports filed with the city of Benicia on Wednesday, Valero had spent $89,507.71 supporting the two candidates as of Monday. That included $38,096.43 with Los Alamos-based Trusted Messenger Marketing on mailers and social media ads. That firm spent $10,000 on Facebook ads. Valero also spent $35,000 with Columbus, Ohio, polling firm EMC Research Inc.

Benicians protest Valero’s campaign tactics

The Benicia Herald, November 4, 2022

Protesters gather at City Park on Wes. to protest the recent election flyers maiiled by a Valero-sponsored PAC, called Progress for Benicia.
[BenIndy Editor: Sorry the Benicia Herald doesn’t publish online. The editor, Galen Kusic, had a great page 1 story, photocopy available here.]

Vallejo Times-Herald: Benicia residents protest Valero’s role in local elections

Residents fed-up with the energy corporation’s slanted advertising campaigns, calling them deceitful, shameful, and confusing.
[BenIndy Editor: This front page above-the-fold Vallejo Times-Herald story is excellent, great photos and quotes. However, there are a few errors in the article.  >> Valero has spent $519K over the last 3 election cycles, not $678K. In our 2022 election, the Valero PAC has reported so far funneling $89K of its $232,000 into the effort to buy Benicia council seats, not the total. We won’t know how much more until required post-election reporting. – RS]
Nikki Basch-Davis, left, talks with Susan Street as dozens of Benicians took to the streets on Wednesday to speak out against the influence of the Valero Benicia Refinery in the local 2022 election. (Chris Riley/Times-Herald)
Vallejo Times-Herald, By Troy Sambajon, November 3, 2022
[Also carried by East Bay Times and]

It’s the small town versus big business fighting over the voice of local democracy.

Concerned Benicians gathered at City Park on Wednesday afternoon to protest the Valero corporations’ role in local city council and mayoral elections. […continued…]

Residents Rally Against ‘Deceptive Campaigning’ By Valero In Nov. 8 Election

SFGate, by Katy St. Clair Bay City News Foundation,  Nov. 2, 2022

Dozens gathered at Benicia’s town center on Wednesday evening to decry what they are calling “malicious” campaigning by the owners of the town’s refinery, Valero, which they say is trying to influence Tuesday’s election.

Carrying signs that read “Valero: Big Bucks Run Amok” and “Stop Polluting Our Elections,” residents rallied in support of two council candidates not backed by Valero, Terry Scott and Kari Birdseye. They also cried foul about big oil money in small-town races.

“We are not paid lobbyists!” said local refinery pollution watchdog Cathy Bennett at the rally. “We’re not even public figures. We are your neighbors… We know this community. We are this community! A corporate giant in Texas does not know this community!” […continued…]