Category Archives: Benicia City Council

“Final Word” forum, Saturday, Nov. 3

The Final Word Forum was challenged by the Valero/Labor PAC but went on as scheduled.  See the video here:  youtube.com/watch?v=9CB2Dd6qcS0  


[PREVIOUS NOTICE] – Mark your calendar and plan to attend this Saturday – this could be a VERY interesting forum, and your last chance before the election to ask questions and express your thoughts about recent negative campaigning by corporate giant Valero Services, Inc. and its affiliates.

Please show up WAY EARLY!!  We’ve learned that oil industry people will try to pack the house and dominate the debate. 

Details…

CITY TO HOST CANDIDATES FORUM TO ADDRESS NEGATIVE MISINFORMATION CAMPAIGN AND “HIT PIECES”

“The City of Benicia code(Sec 1.42.110) allows for a last minute candidate forum to allow candidates to address last minute “hit pieces” and to respond to inflammatory statements and misinformation.

This forum does not always happen but, given the amount of negative campaigning happening in the City Council race, the City’s Open Government Commission will sponsor such a session this Saturday, Nov. 3 from 9-11am at the City Council chambers.

The event will be televised live on Ch. 27, and rebroadcast at 7pm on Sunday and Monday nights, Nov. 4 and 5. It will also be streamed on the City website.

The forum will be moderated by Open Government Commission Chair Bonnie Silvera, with assistance from two other OGC members.  Questions from audience will be written on 3×5 cards and selected by OGC members. Questions will be addressed to all candidates.  Only questions that deal with the purpose of the forum will be addressed.  Candidates are asked to speak to the issues and not make personal comments about other candidates, especially in a negative manner.

KQED: Valero-Backed Group Spends Heavily to Sway Benicia City Council Election

Repost from KQED, The California Report

Valero-Backed Group Spends Heavily to Sway Benicia City Council Election

By Ted Goldberg, October 30, 2018
The Valero Benicia refinery. (Craig Miller/KQED)

The Valero Energy Corp. and several allies have spent more than $165,000 to influence the Benicia City Council election, an amount that’s close to three times as much as all of the candidates have raised combined.

The San Antonio-based oil company, which operates a refinery that’s one of the city’s largest employers, has joined with five state and local labor organizations to donate to a political action committee formed to oppose an environmentalist candidate and back two others the group sees as friendly to the company.

The committee has funded ads and an aggressive telephone campaign to influence the city’s 19,000-plus registered voters.

Experts say the magnitude of the spending in a small municipal election is unusual but that the Benicia campaign is part of a trend.

“We’re going to see a lot more of this spending,” Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School specializing in money in politics, said about corporate political contributions in local elections.

“Even though they are closer to constituents than a gubernatorial or Senate race, voters tend to know less about them. A little bit of spending … can make a difference,” Levinson said.

Valero’s actions are reminiscent of an effort several years ago by Chevron to sway voters in Richmond, where it operates a massive refinery. In 2014 the company spent millions in an unsuccessful attempt to elect a slate of its allies to the City Council.

Some of the PAC’s activities have led Benicia officials to call on the state’s political watchdog to investigate claims that the committee has violated some of California’s laws regulating campaign contributions.

The company’s political activities, first reported by the Vallejo Times-Herald and Roger Straw, an activist and blogger with the Benicia Independent, come 18 months after a major release of toxic sulfur dioxide caused by a power outage at the Valero refinery.

The incident prompted calls for city regulation of the refinery and deepened a divide between the city’s mayor and the company.

The Candidates

The election involves four candidates vying for two open spots on the council.

The 34-word name of the independent expenditure Valero is helping to fund explains clearly who it wants to win. It’s called “Working Families for a Strong Benicia, A Coalition of Labor, Industrial Services Companies, Public Safety and Local Leaders Supporting Christina Strawbridge and Lionel Largaespada and Opposing Kari Birdseye for Benicia City Council 2018.”

The Valero-backed committee calls Birdseye “a yes man” for Mayor Patterson.

“Birdseye is bad for Benicia,” one of its ads says. “We don’t need another job killer.”

Birdseye is a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy organization.

She refers to the company’s executives as “the suits from San Antonio” who “sully our election” and are engaged in a “smear campaign” involving “dirty ads with lies.”

“Benicia deserves better than to be bullied and bamboozled by big money like this,” she said in an interview.

As a member of the city’s Planning Commission in 2016, Birdseye was among those who helped defeat a company plan to expand refinery operations to include crude oil shipped by rail. Birdseye is also a supporter of Mayor Elizabeth Patterson’s failed 2017 proposal to create new local regulations for the refinery.

She said with the Trump administration pulling back from regulating the oil industry and California’s goal of sharply reducing its dependence on carbon-based energy sources in the coming decades, local governments need to take action.

“It’s up to the counties, cities and towns to plan for a clean energy future,” Birdseye said.

“I don’t want Valero to shut down tomorrow,” she said. “I drive a gas-powered car, and our economy still needs Valero in our community, but I do see the need for more transparency with our largest industrial neighbor.”

Birdseye has raised about $20,000 for her campaign, nearly all from individual donors in Benicia and other Solano County communities, and none from businesses.

Pair Supported by Valero-Backed Group

Strawbridge and Largaespada, the two candidates supported by the Valero-backed coalition, emphasize that they have no ties to the independent expenditure group and have worked hard to keep their campaigns positive.

Largaespada chairs the city’s economic development board and works as director of marketing and business development at F3 and Associates, a firm providing advanced surveying and visualization services to a wide variety of customers — including some in the oil and gas industry. Among its clients is Valero.

Largaespada said Valero’s involvement in the election has more to do with the company’s frustration and its deteriorating relationship with Mayor Patterson.

“But that doesn’t give Valero and its various associates permission to launch a negative campaign,” Largaespada said.

“When this all started to come out I went on record, rejecting all of it,” he said. “It’s not the kind of campaign I support at all.”

Largaespada said Valero has a responsibility to keep Benicia safe and that the city and the refinery need to improve communication.

He said he opposed the mayor’s proposal for city oversight of the company, noting that the ordinance was similar to regulations the state has already adopted.

Largaespada has raised close to $21,000, mostly from individuals. He said he returned more than $1,000 he had received from a local labor PAC.

Candidate Christina Strawbridge served on the council from 2011 to 2016, owns a clothing boutique in downtown Benicia and has been involved with community groups for 30 years.

Like Largaespada, she said she’s wary of the support she’s getting from the Valero-backed group.

“I think they think they’re helping me,” Strawbridge said, stressing that she’s not aligned with any group or other candidate. “I’m an independent person, as I proved when I was on the City Council for five years.”

Strawbridge notes that Valero’s taxes account for a large part of Benicia’s budget and have attracted businesses that support refinery operations to the city’s Industrial Park. She said the company “has always stepped up” to help community groups and to do volunteer work in the city.

“That said, I believe there needs to be better communication between Valero and the city of Benicia. It has gotten to be at an all-time low in our relationship,” Strawbridge said.

While she likes certain parts of the mayor’s Industrial Safety Ordinance proposal, including its push for more air monitors, she said Patterson brought it to the council without gathering enough input from others.

“The public didn’t get a chance to review it when it was introduced. Nor did city staff. They had less than a week,” Strawbridge said.

Strawbridge has received close to $24,000 in donations from a mix of individuals, businesses and political action committees. She said she returned more than $1,000 from political action committees associated with Valero’s independent expenditure.

Also in the Running

The fourth candidate running, William Emes, is a retired carpenter who has received no donations or endorsements.

“The only endorsement that counts is your vote,” his website states.

Emes said he has worked in refineries and has a direct understanding of “what safety means.”

In an email he emphasized that he wants to be on a team that “gets things done” and that he places great value in being transparent and objective.

“The manner in which the unions and Valero involved themselves in our election was completely unprincipled and contrary to any meaningful public discussion,” Emes said.

Valero’s Stance and Labor Allies

A Valero spokeswoman did not answer questions about the committee’s involvement in the council election but instead pointed out the company’s viewsin an Oct. 16 letter to the Vallejo Times-Herald.

The letter, signed by refinery general manager Don Wilson, emphasized the refinery’s long-standing presence in Benicia and its strong safety record. It also directly criticized Patterson.

“Unfortunately, at City Hall, the mayor has decided to make our operations, employees’ jobs and the city’s tax revenue her target,” Wilson wrote.

The five unions that have donated to the super PAC are the Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers Local 16, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Local 549, the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, the California State Pipe Trades Council and the District Council of Iron Workers.

The groups who have contributed to the committee represent workers at various refineries, among other industries.

Donald Zampa, president of the Iron Workers District Council, which contributed $30,000 to the committee, said his organization’s involvement in Benicia is aimed at saving jobs.

Zampa said he was not familiar with Patterson’s safety ordinance but believes she is putting the city’s economic health at risk.

“If it was up to her, she would close down the number one job provider in Benicia,” Zampa said.

Push for Investigation into Valero-Backed Group

Mayor Patterson, who supports Birdseye, calls the oil refining sector “a fading industry” that Benicia should pivot away from.

“Valero is trying to bully and buy its way into politics in Benicia,” Patterson said. “I had not seen it so vicious and ugly as it has been this year.”

Heather McLaughlin, Benicia’s city attorney, has filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission against the Valero refinery in connection with a series of phone calls made to Benicia residents about the election.

The so-called push poll involved a questioner laying out negative statements about Birdseye and positive ones about Largaespada and Strawbridge.

In September McLaughlin emailed the firm believed to be behind the phone calls, Research America, warning them that the calls may appear to violate Benicia’s municipal code requiring certain disclosures for campaign communications funded by independent expenditures.

On Oct. 18, McLaughlin requested an FPPC investigation, alleging that Valero sponsored the poll and “did not disclose they were behind the poll during the telephone calls.”

FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga said the commission is in the process of deciding whether to open an inquiry.

Craig Snider: Progressive Dems & the Napa/Solano Central Labor Council

A few Thoughts on Endorsements

By Craig Snider, October 3, 2018
Craig Snider, PDB Vice Chair

Having lived in Benicia since 2003 I’ve had ample opportunity to observe local political endorsements.

In particular, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend regarding endorsements from the Napa/Solano Central Labor Council (NSLC).  This group appears to support any project that has the potential to create jobs regardless of the health, safety and environmental impacts on the local community.

Case in point – the NSLC supported Valero’s “Crude by Rail” project despite overwhelming concerns about “bomb trains” rolling through the Benicia Industrial Park, blocked roads, air pollution, and otherwise putting residents in danger of a catastrophic explosion.

Add to that the NSLC’s endorsement of Vallejo City Council candidates Malgapo and Dew-Costa, who continue to buck the Vallejo Planning Commission, citizen groups, and others in order to green light the ill-advised Orcem cement plant proposal.  That project would send 500 diesel trucks a day through Vallejo neighborhoods, past schools, and spew fine particulates into surrounding neighborhoods as far as Benicia.

Conspicuously absent from the NSLC endorsements are any candidates who don’t support unbridled development.  Apparently “jobs” trump concerns about health and safety for this group.

Recently concerns were voiced by Benicia City Councilmember Tom Campbell regarding the Progressive Democrats of Benicia (PDB) endorsement process – a simple majority vote of the members.  Christina Strawbridge came within two votes of receiving the PDB endorsement. Had she or two of her supporters joined the group and voted for her, she also would have received the PDB endorsement in addition to Kari Birdseye.

Contrast the PDB process with the endorsement process used by the Napa/Solano Labor Council. The steering committee of that group interviews and makes decisions on whom to endorse. The Labor Council includes the Benicia labor unions representing teachers, police and fire. But the endorsement process for labor is top down; their steering committee decides whom to endorse, and then instructs all of their member unions to make the same endorsements.  I would be curious to know if any Benicia teachers, for example, were actually asked who they preferred to endorse, or were they simply told that the unions would be endorsing Largaespada and Strawbridge?

It is more than a little misleading to say that “Benicia teachers, fire and police” endorse a particular candidate when the membership of those unions is never given a chance to validate the endorsements being made in their name. In fact, I wonder if any Benicia citizens actually weighed in on those endorsements?

Don’t get me wrong.  I love labor unions.  I think we need more of them.  They’re great for negotiating worker rights, worker safety, wages, benefits and the like.  However, the NSLC has consistently backed candidates that are soft on environmental protection and community well-being regardless of a candidate’s actual stance on labor issues.

Why else would the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers Local 180 PAC put $500 each into the Largaespada and Strawbridge campaigns? Why would the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulator and Allied Workers Local 16, AFL-CIO PAC fund put $580 into the Largaespada campaign and $330 into the Strawbridge campaign?

Fortunately, we have a candidate for Benicia City Council who is not backed by outside special interests nor taking donations from corporations.  Kari Birdseye won’t be swayed by big business, real estate developers, construction unions or the NSLC.

We need City Council members who are independent and not willing to swing votes toward ill-advised developments.  I watched while our community narrowly “dodged bullets” with the “Crude by Rail” proposal and the “Seeno” property development due to a “development at any cost” attitude by some City Council members.  We shouldn’t have to raise a ruckus to halt ill-advised projects that compromise our health and safety. Kari Birdseye is a sharp, independent-minded woman who wants to see development in Benicia that benefits Benicians without risking our safety and lifestyle.

Whenever I return to Benicia from elsewhere I’m so thankful for the small-town atmosphere, beautiful surroundings and my many friends.  I want to keep it that way and that’s why I’m supporting Kari Birdseye for City Council.

Craig Snider
Benicia