By Lois Kazakoff January 2, 2015 sfgate.com
HOW THE CRUDE-BY-RAIL DEBATE IS CENSORED
Valero seeks to modify its Benicia refinery to bring in two 50-car
trains a day of crude oil.
When I wrote in November about how the mayor of Benicia was
effectively muzzled from speaking about a pending city decision
with nationwide importance, I thought the debate was over climate
change. Now I learn the real concern is over democracy itself.
My Nov. 18 blog post concerned the City Council’s decision to
make public an opinion on whether the mayor should be allowed
to speak freely with voters about Valero’s application to convert
its Benicia refinery to receive crude from the Baaken Oil Shale by
rail. The decision is huge because fracking the crude is only
profitable if the oil can reach refineries and the global market.
Benicia’s refinery and port are key components to success.
Locally, Benicians and Californians living along the rail lines are
fearful of train cars filled with the highly volatile crude rumbling
through their communities twice a day. It’s a highly charged
dispute that has drawn in Attorney General Kamala Harris,
who chastised the city for only studying the effects on Benicia
and not the effects along the entire rail line through California.
When the City Council voted to make public the opinion,
written by an attorney hired by the city attorney, the decision
was Mayor Elizabeth Patterson had overstepped her bounds.
Why? Because local politicians can advocate for new laws,
but when they are holding a public hearing or ruling on a
permit —acting more like judges than legislators — the permit
applicant’s right to appear before an unbiased body trumps
the legislator’s right to freely express an opinion.
Peter Scheer, the executive director of the First Amendment
Coalition, writes in Sunday’s Insight section that this growing
practice of advising City Council members to censor themselves
is deleterious not just to political debate over important and
engaging local issues but to democracy. By giving City Councils
this dual role and then advising them to censor their own speech,
we discourage civic participation on the concerns constituents
care about most.