|Where's the Beef?
July 23, 2008
This is the one-week anniversary of the Chevron deal. I promised a more detailed analysis, and here it is.
It is followed by two dissenting opinions (The E-FORUM likes to be fair and balanced) by Josh Genser and Jim Rogers
Among other things, the E-FORUM is a great catharsis for me. It enables me to get troubling thoughts off my chest and move on to the next battle and the next election. Without this opportunity, my sanity would surely have succumbed long ago.
As an eternal optimist, I really did my homework. I prepared the best I could for last week’s Chevron hearings, and I hoped there might be legitimate public testimony with real debate shaping a final decision. But I knew deep down that was probably not the case.
Not since 1994 when another billion dollar Chevron project was up for appeal, has the City Council rolled over so completely as it did on July 16 when a five-person majority (Viramontes, Bates, Lopez, Marquez and Sandhu) certified a fatally flawed EIR, gutted essential conditions from a use permit and adopted a “Community Benefits Agreement” that left stunned Richmond residents asking “Where’s the beef?”
The conclusion at about 2:00 a.m. on July 16 of thirteen hours of testimony over two days of public hearings by the City Council on the Chevron Energy and Hydrogen Renewal Project was nothing but ethereal.
Like the previous Planning Commission hearing, Chevron tried to pack the house with its shills by prepping, feeding and t-shirting union members and staff of Chevron-funded charities and sending them down to sign up to speak and pack the auditorium. This time, speakers for Chevron and the community were alternated, denying Chevron the opportunity to hog the first few hours of testimony. With perhaps a single exception, all speakers supporting Chevron were directly or indirectly on the Chevron payroll, but they were still outnumbered three to one by community members asking for clear controls on future pollution and for environmental justice.
ordinary but highly motivated people from
Scientists and experts, on no industry payroll and representing community groups, provided compelling evidence for proposed conditions to limit the prospects for future pollution. They were backed by a scientist retained by the California Attorney General’s Office.
City staff were pretty much spectators at the hearing, conceding the high ground to their hired gun consultants. When you are a public employee working for a City Council with a disciplined majority firmly in charge, the last thing you want to is look disloyal. The City’s principal scientific consultant relied on secret data that could not be verified and reports with conclusions based on unsourced information. The City’s contract “environmental” attorneys couldn’t have done a better job if they had been hired directly by Chevron. A critical late hour letter from the Attorney General’s Office was sequestered by staff rather than being shared with the City Council.
The two authors of the environmental impact report at the hearings couldn’t answer basic questions about alternative energy and admitted they had no technical credentials or experience in the field. Neither was a registered engineer, although one was a weatherman. Scientific prostitution was so rampant that the auditorium could have been mistaken for a hooker’s ball.
Like tobacco company executives at a congressional hearing, the Chevron suits lied time and time agian and downplayed the community’s concerns, calling up a phalanx of uniformly t-shirted union oil workers to plug desperately needed construction jobs – the only excuse anyone could come up with for proceeding in such haste and providing a modicum of cover for a brain dead City Council. “Trust us,” they said.
Much of the EIR and Conditional Use Permit (CUP) discussion involved highly technical arguments about the potential health effects of emissions from complex refining processes, and it’s perhaps too easy to chalk this up as simply difference of opinions among experts. But when the Viramontes Five supported opinions that favored Chevron, and the opinions of the experts representing half-dozen community groups were rejected wholesale, it was a sign that something suspicious, if not pernicious, was going on.
The City Council represents the people, right? And surely they would side with them on this one, mitigating any risk that Chevron might be lying?
The five-member majority of the City Council, known as the “Viramontes Five” (Viramontes, Marquez, Lopez, Sandhu and Bates) already knew what they were going to do. They weren’t listening to anyone. Their conclusions, motions votes and side agreements were already written out by Chevron, rehearsed and delivered flawlessly.
How did this happen, and what can we do about it? Some people still believe that all City Council members have the City’s best interests at heart, and battles such as these are just manifestations of different approaches to a common goal. I can’t believe that. It’s just too much of a stretch. These people have to be stopped. Now.
The Richmond City Council has been hijacked by a gang of five, the “Viramontes Five” (Viramontes, Marquez, Lopez, Sandhu and Bates), who have set an ambitious agenda defined by Big Oil, Big Business, Big Industries and Big Developers. They consider neighborhoods and neighborhood councils as their adversaries, ordinary people as ignorant about the complexities of municipal government and environmentalists as radicals to be discredited and quashed.
Developers and large corporations have all the answers, they believe, or how else would they have gotten so rich?
most part, they have never worked in the private sector and don’t know
that business people are just as fallible as anyone else. They’ve never
had to risk their future starting a business or making a payroll. They
haven’t developed or sharpened the negotiating skills required to stay
alive in the business world. And at the end of the day, they gave away
the City of
These five are not bad people. In fact, as individuals, they can be personable, fun, dedicated and even compassionate. They are the kind of people you might enjoy having a beer, a glass of wine or a cup of coffee with any time – like George Bush.
the last couple of years, something has gone terribly wrong with this
clique of City Council members. Like gentle house pets that run off and
form a vicious pack, there is a mob mentality about this group that has
led them to arrogant and irrational decisions that are typically not in
the best interest of
Viramontes learned about politics working in the California Assembly (as she likes to remind us), where secret backroom deals were the norm. She learned this lesson well and brought it to the Richmond City Council where government is supposed to be more transparent and open. How she emerged as first among five is puzzling, but she is clearly the lead dog. The others follow her like puppies with tails wagging and their tongues hanging out.
Viramontes set her sights on immobilizing neighborhoods, small businesses, environmentalists, and ordinary people in favor of big business. Over the last couple of years, Viramontes has led her disciplined troops to increase secrecy in Richmond government, undermine neighborhood power by gutting Design Review, support every development project against skeptical neighbors, do away with operable windows in the renovated City Hall and bash historic preservation – all irrational and all contrary to the wishes of the vast majority of Richmond residents. She is a smart person but routinely plays fast and loose with facts to make a point and has little respect for technicalities.
During the Design Review debate, she told the story over and over again about the family who got Design Review approval for an addition and then had to tear it out because some building inspector found it to be non-code compliant, But she has never revealed the location so facts can be checked. She always refers to Design Review as “Design and Review,” perhaps a seemingly innocuous misspeak, but it drives people crazy. Maybe that’s why she does it.
On July 16, Viramontes described the Chevron project application as pending for four years. In fact, the application was filed only a little over three years ago on April 6, 2005. And it would have proceeded through the process much faster if Chevron had filed a complete application. Chevron’s application was full of inconsistencies, omissions and errors that held up the process. If you don’t believe me, ask the attorney general.
insult was the Community Services Agreement, characterized as a $61
million gift to Richmond, an amount remarkably similar to the $60
million tax refund Chevron is still fighting for with the Contra Costa
Assessment Appeals Board (Contra Costa Times, 11/29/07). The tax
refund, if sustained, would require
The Community Services Agreement was negotiated between the Viramontes Five and Chevron behind closed doors and sprung on the other four surprised City Council members minutes before the July 15 hearing. Without availing themselves of any of the experience and expertise available from the city manager, city attorney or other experts, the Viramontes Five were taken to the cleaners by Chevron. Although gigantic flaws in the agreement came to light under questioning by other Council members, the Five shut their ears and soldiered on to adoption.
Chevron Community Benefits Agreement sound too good to be true? Well,
for "Alternative Energy Funding" is in fact a simple business venture by
Chevron. They'll spend this amount to make renewable energy “…for sale
to Pacific Gas & Electric or for sale to the City…” while Chevron
retains the greenhouse gas credits and tax credits. This is not a gift
to the City.
participant on the Bay Trail planning group, Chevron previously provided
$7 to $8 per square foot as the basis for the $280,000 trail easement
valuation used in the 2001 Feasibility Study of Bay Trail Routes to
Point San Pablo Peninsula. Chevron's current $3 million valuation in
the proposed Community Benefits Agreement represents a completely
unrealistic $85 per square foot value for a non-exclusive trail easement
on a 20-foot wide strip of land adjacent to and overlooking I-580 on
very steep terrain. For comparison, a buildable residential lot located
on Montana Street in Point Richmond with ready access to utility hookups
has been on the market for a long time without selling at a listing
representing $32 per square foot; and this is for fee title, rather than
simply a non-exclusive trail easement. In summary, Chevron's trail
easement is worth something in the ballpark of $300,000 -- not the
claimed $3 million.
listed as the "Richmond Community Fund" will allocate $1 million per
year for 10 years to other non-profits selected by a seven-member
committee, four of whom are either chosen by or approved by
Chevron. Again, this money will not come to the City. It may end up
benefiting worthy causes, but only those hand picked by Chevron and
friends, and in a way that Chevron should be doing all the time any way
as a good neighbor and not in exchange for a building permit. And there
will be no broad community input in how funds are allocated.
Stripped of all its scams, the Community Benefit Agreement is worth maybe $6 million, about the same amount Chevron used buy off the City Council in 1994, not adjusted for inflation, which would make it even worse.
The Viramontes Five has subverted all the practices of good government in favor of secrecy, irrationality, arrogance, and self-righteousness. With their naivety and inexperience, they tried to play with the big dogs but were way over their heads. Ultimately, they embarrassed themselves and sold out the people they are supposed to represent.
Three of the Viramontes Five (Bates, Marquez and Sandhu) are up for reelection this November when the City Council shrinks to seven members, and there is an opportunity for Richmond voters to rid themselves of this majority that continues to position themselves with Big Oil, Big Business, Big Industry and Big Developers and operate in secrecy to support flawed and irrational policies against the best interests of Richmond.
These three have been endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce (a pawn of Chevron) and will be supported by tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Chevron dollars, poured into “independent committees” (PACs) between now and election day.
Dissenting Opinion from Jim Rogers
The recent vote on Chevron's Project hinged on whether Councilmembers believed that the Project would make air quality better or worse.
Dissenting Opinion from Josh Genser:
applaud the courage of the majority of the Richmond City Council who
voted to approve the Chevron refinery renewal project. In the face of
determined and very vocal opposition, to whom no half-truth or
distortion was stooping too low, Maria Viramontes, John Marquez, Nat
Bates, Harpreet Sandhu and Ludmyrna Lopez did what was best for