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Where's the Beef?


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.


It wasn’t.


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.


Dozens of ordinary but highly motivated people from Richmond and surrounding communities begged the City Council to adopt conditions that would simply ensure that Chevron would stick to their commitment to not refine heavier crude oils in Richmond. “We can’t do it, and we won’t do it,” said Chevron. Over the previous week, nearly a hundred Richmond residents beseeched the City Council to uphold the condition that Chevron fund Bay Trail construction to get across I-580.


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?


Well, wrong.


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.


Score: Chevron 100; Richmond 0.


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?


For the 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 Richmond because they didn’t know or didn’t care what they were doing and didn’t have the skill or experience to match their adversaries.


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.


But over 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 Richmond voters.


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.


The final 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 Richmond to pay back millions of dollars long since spent. Said Chevron’s Dean O’Hair, quoted by the Times “Local agencies got money they shouldn't have received.”


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.


Does the Chevron Community Benefits Agreement sound too good to be true?  Well, it is.

Of the alleged $61.6 million in the secretly negotiated Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) that Chevron and a majority of city council members presented, the day before voting on it, check out this breakdown. You'll see that how 61.6 quickly shrinks down to about a sixth of its size!


$14.6 million 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.

$6 million for "Environmental Benefits" will not come to the city at all.  The "Environmental Benefits" are in fact watered down versions of legitimate mitigations that were removed by the Viramontes Five from the CUP where they belonged. The money will be used by Chevron to pay for things like domes on tanks to reduce VOC emissions and ground level air monitoring, which the CUP would have required them to do anyway.

$2 million as a contribution to “reduce mobile emission sources,” with the “targeted project” being the “transportation element of Greenprint.” Greenprint is Jim Roger’s legitimate dream of a totally green demonstration housing project. When and if this ever happens, it will not be a gift; it will be Chevron's first offset of the Renewal Project's expected 898,000 annual increase in GHG emissions.

$5 million for the Bay Trail will not come to the City either.  In the Viramontes Five version, $3 million of it is Chevron's grossly overestimated value of a small piece of land for a trail easement, and $2 million is for security upgrades along the trail to benefit Chevron, not the City.  There is no money for the original CUP requirement for Chevron to donate right of way and pay for construction of a Bay Trail connection to the Point San Pablo Peninsula, replacing a dangerous bike route along I-580 that resulted in one death and one serous injury two years ago.


As a 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.

$6 million
listed for "Community Health" will fund the non-profit Brookside Community Health Clinic located not in Richmond but in in San Pablo at $1 million per year for six years.  This money will not come to the city.  It will benefit a worthy cause, 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.


$10 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.

$1.2 million over six years to support "Richmond Employment Agency" job readiness, skill development and job placement within the city or region, with no specification as to which agencies will actually receive the funds.  Again, money for such purposes is something Chevron should be doing all the time any way as a good neighbor and not in exchange for a building permit. Chevron refuses to divulge how many of their employees are Richmond residents, but the conventional wisdom is that it is around 5 percent. If the proportion were significant, Chevron would not be so reluctant to disclose it. The best thing Chevron could do is hire a larger proportion of its employees from Richmond.

$2.1 million to support an Industrial Arts training academy for high school students at unspecified schools or locations over six years with no designated recipient.  Again, money for such purposes is something Chevron should be doing all the time any way as a good neighbor and not in exchange for a building permit. Again, Chevron refuses to divulge how many of their employees are Richmond residents, but the conventional wisdom is that it is around 5 percent. If the proportion were significant, Chevron would not be so reluctant to disclose it. The best thing Chevron could do is hire a larger proportion of its employees from Richmond.

$5.05 million
to support the Office of Neighborhood Safety violence prevention efforts will not be paid out directly to anybody.  It will be contingent on raising matching funds over six years.

$.75 million ($750,000) over six years to support GED classes and test prep for Richmond students, but only if the city pays for a grant writer to secure matching funds.

Now let's look at how much is left:  of the $61.6, we're now down to $8.9 million.

This $8.9 million might actually be available to the city of Richmond directly, as follows:

$.2 million (200 thousand) for the Fire Department over two years.

$2.5 million for Richmond Build over six years.

$.2 million ($200,000) for youth employment over two years.

$6 million over six years to hire more police officers, and the city is obligated to increase the ratio of police officers to 2.0 per thousand residents, whether the $6 million covers this expense or not.  After six years, the city's general fund will have to maintain the funding levels that had been previously covered by Chevron.

And all the city had to do to get this $8.9 million is give away a building permit for a project that will seriously compromise the community's health.  Is this a sweetheart deal for Chevron or what?


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.

I voted no because I felt Chevron could have done more to step up to the plate for Richmond, a spot they have been conspicuously absent  from the last few years,as there corporate belt tightening strategy has squeezed Richmond.

Having said that, I don't agree with the idea that this was a "sellout".

I believe my colleagues on the City Council negotiated hard to get safety improvements, carbon reductions and community benefits.

The deal was, in many important ways, better than similar deals elsewhere, and better than past deals in Richmond.

This is in large part due to the community pressure to demand a better project.
The community's voice was heard, the project approved was immeasurably better than what would have been approved without the community pressure.
Like my colleagues, I believe the Project's goals of replacing decrepit nearly century old equipment, and obtaining desperately needed jobs and community benefits were vital.
Unlike my colleagues who voted to approve the Project, I thought there were several areas where we could have, and should have, made Chevron step up to the plate. I don't believe any of these issues were deal breakers that would have made Chevron walk away and leave us with a bunch of decrepit dangerous 80 year old facilities ready to blow up and poison our neighborhoods.

There was vigorous debate about whether Chevron's being able to refine heavier crude would have caused more flaring and accidents.

Some independent experts thought  that the Project, taken as a whole would create cleaner air.

Others weren't so sure.

I proposed that we simply issue a temporary permit, let Chevron build their Project, and retain the right to be able to tell them not to refine the heavier crude if , in fact, it was causing more health impacts.

This condition was not accepted by the Council majority, and I voted no.

Although there were other  issues I was troubled by ( e.g. lack of an ironclad commitment to let us close the deadly gap in the Bay Trail connecting Pt. Richmond and Pt. Molate), the idea of buying a pig in a poke when we didn't have to was a deal breaker for me.
Chevron swore up and down that the Project would result in less pollution, so why would they walk if we retained authority to solve the problem if it turned out they were wrong?
I don't believe this was empty political posturing. I believe Chevron took the safety issues very seriously and committed to spending tens of millions to reduce emissions, because their corporate culture cares about safety.

Not all oil refineries do take safety seriously.  In the 90s,   other refineries' shocking disregard for safety resulted in numerous explosions (some fatal) and resulted in the Board of Supervisors passing the Good Neighbor Ordinance (which I wrote) to crack down on quick buck operators who sold out safety for the bottom line.

I don't believe my colleagues votes for Chevron's project is  a reflection of them being Chevron lackeys, any more than my vote against the specific proposal was a reflection of Chevron spending about $50,000 in an unsuccessful hit piece  attempt to prevent me from being elected as a Councilmember.

Measure T,  a 2006 tax which  would have cost Chevron tens of millions, was put on the ballot primarily by members of the 5 person Council majority that approved the Chevron proposal.

No one wanted Chevron to walk away from replacing old, dangerous facilities, and no one had a crystal ball to know where Chevron's breaking point was.

My idea of where that "tipping point" was simply different from the Council majority's idea.

If you have any comments or questions on this or other issues, please feel free to contact me.


Jim Rogers


Dissenting Opinion from Josh Genser:


We 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 Richmond, both financially and environmentally.

The media, attempting to be even-handed, portrayed the choice as one between jobs and tax revenues, on the one hand, and the environment and public health on the other.  In fact, approval of the project means substantial benefits for all.  Upgrading the refinery's equipment will reduce emissions of the kind of pollutants that cause respiratory diseases, and decrease the chances of accidents that can result in harmful emissions, and increase the efficiency of energy use by the refinery, itself.  The project is neutral on greenhouse gas emissions, which do not cause respiratory distress, but do accelerate global warming.

That Richmond will receive more than $60 million in grants and other benefits from Chevron is wonderful, and, as Richmond residents, property owners and business owners, we will benefit from that beneficence.  However, we deplore the fact that, to do business in Richmond, one must bribe the City.  A bribe, at least, is offered willingly, but those City Councilmembers who would have insisted upon extorting a larger amount should be thoroughly ashamed.

As long-time leaders of the Chamber of Commerce, we encourage businesses to locate in Richmond, but, given the hoops through which Richmond's biggest business had to jump in order to reduce emissions and become safer and more efficient, we sometimes despair.  The re-election of the honest and even-handed incumbents who voted in favor of the Chevron project, Nat Bates, John Marquez and Harpreet Sandhu, would help preserve some semblance of Richmond's welcome mat for employers and taxpayers.

Signed: Joshua Genser, Mark Howe, John Zeisenhenne, Peter Hass, Rafael Madrigal, Marsha Tomassi