BENICIA – Like its place in the center of Benicia overlooking its downtown, the Valero Benicia Refinery cast a shadow over a forum for Benicia City Council candidates Wednesday night, where the five candidates seethed over revelations of undisclosed emissions and fretted about the oil giant’s influence in the city’s politics.
The candidates took on other issues as well, in particular disagreeing on a proposed sales tax increase and whether to welcome more cannabis retailers to the city.
The prepared questions from the League of Women Voters of Solano County – which hosted the forum – did not address the refinery’s emissions or influence, but it dominated the questions solicited from the audience. A packed audience at the Benicia Senior Center listened intently to the candidates’ responses for nearly two hours.
Valero’s influence has been felt heavily in the last two election cycles in Benicia. In 2018, a Political Action Committee receiving funding from the company spent heavily on ads attacking planning commissioner Kari Birdseye, who had helped block a Valero proposal to ship crude oil by rail.
Birdseye ultimately lost her first council bid to incumbent Christina Strawbridge and Lionel Largaespada, who are both now running for reelection. Strawbridge then ran for mayor two years later, and once again Valero attacked her opponent, then-Councilmember Steve Young. Young ultimately prevailed in that race, 53%-31%.
This year, Valero has dumped $230,000 into its PAC but had not reported any expenditures for November’s election as of early October, leading to anxiety for some candidates over how and when Valero will spend that money. The candidates’ campaigns have a $34,000 cap on spending, but the PAC does not have that restriction.
Retired executive Terry Scott, who is running for the council a second time after narrowly losing in 2020, credited Young with keeping Valero at bay in this year’s election, saying that if Valero tried to buy Benicia’s elections “that the people in this community are going to rise up, they are no longer going to take this becoming a refinery town.”
But despite the lack of Valero spending so far, Strawbridge said that the current campaign is “as bad as 2020.”
“There has been attack after attack,” Strawbridge said, pointing to posts on social media and saying that she has made two ethics complaints about other candidates to the city. “So I just feel like there's a lot of desire to say we are running clean campaigns. And I'm afraid we aren't.”
Another change in the dynamic with Valero was revelations earlier this year that Valero had been spewing thousands of tons of excess pollution from a hydrogen vent for decades. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District first became aware of the issue in 2019, but did not alert the city government or residents until this year, when it sought an abatement order against Valero to correct the violations. Penalties for Valero have yet to be determined.
Largaespada pointed out that determining punishment for Valero is not in the city’s jurisdiction, though it will provide input. “Valero like any business and every business in the community is expected to follow laws, whether they come at a local level, the county or the state,” he said. “With respect to punishment of sorts, that is the jurisdiction of the air board.”
Strawbridge said that Valero had “betrayed” the city, but also chided regulators for not alerting the city to the toxic release.
“It's not only Valero but the Air District,” she said. “They did not report what they have found as far as the emissions, we still don't know what the impact that's going to have on our health and we need more information on that.”
Birdseye and Scott both stressed the need for more monitoring, both in the community and in people’s homes, and said that they want financial penalties from Valero to go to the city to help pay for the cost of such monitoring.
“The fine that they are going to impose which hopefully will run into the millions of dollars to tens of millions of dollars, should come back to our community that should then be used for funding that can be used by every single person in this room to get air filtration systems and monitoring systems in your house,” Scott said.
Birdseye said that the community air monitoring currently in place was limited in terms of the emissions that Valero was found to have been releasing, so the city needed to find a way to have more robust air monitoring. “Right now, we rely on citizens’ Purple Air monitoring stations at our school sites and throughout our community,” she said. “And they pick up just the particulate matter, not the toxic gases, not the toxic compounds that are in our air.”
William “Billy” Innes, a retired educator who joined the race late, had a brief answer for how he would address Valero’s emissions that drew a rebuke from the forum moderator for addressing the other candidates. “Am I planning on doing anything about this? Oh, heck yes, I am. I'm planning on voting for Kari Birdseye and Terry Scott,” he said.
The candidates disagreed most sharply on Measure R, a proposed three-quarter-cent sales tax increase that will also be on the ballot in November, with their responses varying from enthusiastic endorsement to staunch opposition. The measure’s language says the estimated $5 million in annual proceeds would go to road repair, though the tax is a general tax and could be spent on any purpose.
Largaespada said that there are “5 million reasons to vote against Measure R” and argued that between a statewide gas tax, franchise fees for trash collection and expected revenue growth in the city, it could already allocate $5 million toward roads. “It's in the budget right now,” he said. “I'm a reasonable person. If staff had said we're out of money, then yes on R.”
But Largaespada’s current counterpart on the council, Strawbridge, said that Measure R was necessary to maintain Benicia’s streets. “We must pass Measure R,” she said. “Our roads are pathetic and dangerous. It’s going to be less than a penny on the dollar. This is a small investment for maintaining your property values and keeping kids on bikes safe.”
Birdseye agreed with Strawbridge. “If we want better roads, not only for our home values, but for our businesses, for our industrial parks where trucks are banging around and getting broken axles. If we want safe roads, this is the way to do it right now,” she said.
Scott was more measured in his support. “While no one likes new taxes, I support Measure R,” he said. “It is the only way we will be able to finally address the steep cost of road repair maintenance and specific infrastructure.”
Innes bristled at the argument that Measure R would protect homeowners’ property values, pointing out that the tax would have a disproportionate impact on the city’s poorest residents. “The argument I hear on behalf of Measure R is that it will help maintain property values for homeowners,” he said. “I understand that. But is it right to have those who make the least amount of money, minimum wage, have to sustain homeowners’ property rights?”
The candidates also differed on whether to allow new cannabis dispensaries in the city. The only dispensary in the city, Stizzy, opened a year ago and Young recently said in a Facebook post that it has become the second largest tax producer in the city. In 2020, a ballot measure found that a majority of Benicia voters did want more cannabis dispensaries by a vote of 52-48%.
Strawbridge and Largaespada were apprehensive about allowing more dispensaries. Strawbridge said that the city needed more time to understand the impacts of the current dispensary. “We're hearing a lot of numbers being passed out,” she said. “So far the council has not gotten nor received any information about what the retail cannabis is developing as far as financial support. So I have concerns, because we have been told through our finance director that it's lower than what they expected.”
Scott said that he would also like to see more information, but touted the tax benefits and said that the current dispensary has not caused any law enforcement issues. Birdseye said that industrial cannabis production has been going well in the city and she would support more retail. Innes said that he thought cannabis businesses were safer to have downtown than bars.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the results of a ballot measure on cannabis retail.
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Scott Morris is a journalist based in Oakland who covers policing, protest, civil rights and far-right extremism. His work has been published in ProPublica, the Appeal and Oaklandside.
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