Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Martinez: A Cautionary Tale of Urban Development and Campaign Finance

By Norma Fox

The sad tale of once small town Martinez was poignantly described by former Martinez City Councilman Bill Wainwright in a recent Contra Costa Times article (Nov.10,2007, pg. A19). [Wainwright, an incumbent, was defeated in 2006 due, in part, to funding by out-of-town developers who supported his opponents.]

Once a compact community surrounded by ranch lands and orchards, in the1950s Martinez began to meet the fate of many a small town that embraces without restraint the “improvement” schemes of wealthy real estate developers. Over a series of years, the peripheral open lands were annexed to the city and converted into housing developments. Now, just a few decades later, the population has jumped to 36,000 and Martinez struggles with a decaying town core, surrounded by sprawling subdivisions and shopping malls.

Why would the elected leadership of a vibrant community choose to adopt development plans that drain away the town’s charm and vitality? Were they suddenly put under a hypnotic spell by the corporate developers? No, they were gradually replaced. Over time, the outside developers simply poured huge sums of money into the election campaigns of candidates who were inclined to agree with their vision of urban development.

The hijacking of a town begins with the hijacking of elections, relentlessly and methodically, over a series of several election cycles. Here is Benicia, after our recent election, we now have a second chance. Although big money did its best to mesmerize our town with a tidal wave of slick and deceptive mailers (2/3 of all money spent came from outside special interest groups), there were enough alert voters (a mere 178 to be exact) unwilling to take the bait, that their efforts went down to defeat. Now let’s take the necessary steps to prevent the fate of Martinez from happening to our town. “The necessary first step,” says Bill Wainwright, “is to get big money campaign contributors out of local politics.”

Here is the Martinez tale in Bill Wainwright’s own words:

“Martinez is, like many older towns, a divided community. It’s divided between its older town core and the larger periphery that was annexed between the 1950s and 1980s.

Then, real estate developers sold “tax base improvement” to the town “fathers” (no town mothers then), starting a democracy-eroding relationship that continues to this day.

Subdivisions replaced ranch land and orchards. Most of the new residents in those subdivisions never connected with the old downtown core that was losing commercial vitality to freeway-accessible, suburban shopper-convenient malls and the new I-680 bridge that replaced the ferry [in 1962].

The developers needed votes on the council to get their projects through. They continue to contribute heavily to local campaigns, looking for and finding candidates willing to oblige their needs. They now have all five council members on their side.

With 60 percent of Martinez voters now living in the subdivisions periphery, it’s easy to win an election with slick mailers and big signs financed by developers.

The now infamous 2004 Measure M redevelopment advisory vote saw developers outspend opponents 5 to 1.

Voters and their candidates who have an actual connection with the town are regularly outgunned.

To reconnect our city government with its people, the grip of big money on elected officials has to be broken.”

Monday, November 5, 2007

Mayoral Candidate Whitney Violates Ethics Pledge

by Norma Fox

Sadly it appears Mayoral candidate Whitney has violated our Election Ethics code and the candidate’s Pledge that he so heartily endorsed.

The Ethics Pledge requires candidates to immediately and PUBLICLY repudiate in the media any support they receive from independent groups who use tactics that violate the ethical standards of the code. When the sleazy attack ads came out last Friday, I checked the papers for the last three days hoping to see his repudiation. Sadly, he has disappointed me.

Starting last Friday morning, a couple of independent PACs have produced several dishonorable attack ads smearing his opponent Elizabeth Patterson, and praising Whitney.

Our Ethics Ordinance that the Council passed last Spring with his hearty approval (Chap. 1.36, Title 1), and the Fair Campaign Practices Pledge that Whitney proudly endorsed and signed, requires them to:

” …immediately and PUBLICLY repudiate in the media any support deriving from any individual or group which resorts, on behalf of my candidacy or in opposition to that of my opponent, to the methods and tactics which violate this code.”

Whitney could have published a repudiation on Saturday in the Vallejo Times Herald, and on Sunday in the Benicia Herald. He has not done so, even as of today, Monday.

Instead he buried a disclaimer message in a message board on BeniciaNews.com which, let’s face it, few Benicians ever read. Even if they go to BeniciaNews.com and search the articles and links, they won't see his disclaimer message. They'll only find it if they happen to browse the message board. A DISCLAIMER IN A HIDDEN MESSAGE BOARD IS NOT PUBLIC.

To make matters worse, on Sunday he violated another section of the Ethics Pledge which says,
”I shall not use character defamation…or scurrilous attacks on any candidate.”

He was quoted in an article in the Sunday Contra Costa Times, saying that Patterson “invites the criticism” from the attack ads because of her “ridiculous pandering drivel.” Oh my dear. Character defamation? Scurrilous attacks?

It’s really ironic. If he had refrained from using such language about his opponent, and had quickly printed a public disclaimer in the newspaper to repudiate the sleazy attack ads from the PACs , I think he would have enhanced and confirmed his image as a man of integrity and honor, and perhaps even earned a few more votes. Instead, by attacking her in that manner, and by hiding his disclaimer, he has made a mockery of the Ethics Pledge that he signed, and unfortunately tarnished his image and undermined trust.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Alternative Vision for the Seeno Project

Our local citizens' group, Benicia First!, calls for a more visionary and sustainable development:

by Jerome Page

We have great concern about the proposed Seeno project, its size, conceptual design and obvious impacts, including many not subject to adequate mitigation. What is entailed in this project as designed will irrevocably alter the character and quality of life of Benicia without the promise of a viable, prosperous long term future.

We do not believe that Benicia should settle for a backward oriented, conventional project framed as something of an extension of our present industrial park. The long term economic viability of that static twentieth century model would be in great doubt.

We believe that the site, the landscape, the quality of Benicia and its population make it an ideal setting for the types of creative, research oriented companies and enterprises that will be shaping the future of our country. We believe that a development that uses the beauty of our landscape as an asset is preferable to one that destroys it.

The country is beginning to awaken to concepts of sustainability, of green enterprises, of a future not dependent upon a petroleum economy and it is hungry for ideas. Numerous cities and towns are beginning to respond with projects and ideas for that future. We believe that Benicia has a unique opportunity to be among them.

There has already been talk of searching for a research and development center, that itself becomes a magnet for other creative and future oriented new enterprises. We would like to work with other groups and individuals in developing plans for such a search and developing the critieria for the type of development in which all Benicians can have confidence and pride.

We believe that Benicians working together can frame such a future for Benicia and we pledge to do everything in our power to assist in achieving that end.

Benicia Budget Balanced or Not?

by Norma Fox

Is the Benicia Budget balanced? Who knows. Maybe it depends on how you look at it. There has been a bit of disagreement about this subject lately. Personally, I’m inclined to think that Council Candidate Tom Campbell may be onto something when he simply points out that since present and projected total expenditures exceed revenue, perhaps we should question whether this is a balanced budget. He has a history of being a great budget watchdog for our city as a former city council member and also as a 4-year member of the city’s Audit and Finance Committee.

Having worked for years in an accounting environment myself, I know something about how reliable accounting statements and budget forecasts can be. Council candidate Strawbridge challenges Campbell’s assertion, saying, “Let’s look at the FACTS.” Well, sometimes what is a “fact” depends on how you define your terms and categories, and what figures you lump together. Also the summary data is only as good as the raw source data it comes from (garbage in-garbage out rule).

We citizens cannot pour through the budget at this level of detail. But I have a lot of trust Tom Campbell’s record of strict fiscal responsibility and discipline and his proven expertise and experience in budget oversight.

Censorship in Benicia!

Freedom of the Press has succumbed to the influence of the Big Money Candidates

Les Mahler, Editor of Benicia Herald, Suspended for Writing Critical Editorial about the Big Money Candidates in our Election.

Some of you may not yet know about the crisis that occurred at the Benicia Herald this Tuesday, Oct. 30. If you've heard a little but don't know the whole story, I recommend reading this article in Vallejo Times Herald, Nov. 1. (Be sure to click on the readers' Comments at the bottom of the story, to get additional details, including a note from Les Mahler.)


There was a rather large demonstration in front of the Benicia Herald office Friday with many protest signs complaining about this power play by Candidates Strawbridge and Whitney, and the effect this has had on freedom of the press in this town. We want reporters and editors who are free to report the whole story from every angle, whether it is critical of big advertisers and influential officials or not.

Cancel your subscription to Benicia Herald! 745-0733

Some of us have decided to cancel our subscription to the Benicia Herald EFFECTIVE DEC. 1, UNLESS the editor is rehired, and the paper changes its heavy handed policy of news and editorial censorship.

I cancelled my sub on Friday, and was angrily mocked by a management person (Sam LeRoy?) who said that only a couple others had done so, and he doubted if any others would follow. Help us prove him wrong. Consider joining us. Call the Herald on Monday morning, Nov. 5, and cancel your sub (effective Dec. 1).

This will send a strong message to the Publisher, David Payne, that the people of this town don't want big money interests controlling what we can read in our paper. (And after you call, please mail a note EXPLAINING WHY you’re canceling, addressed to David Payne, Publisher, c/o Benicia Herald, 820 First Street, Benicia, CA 94510, Or, you can also email him at benheral@pacbell.net