Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Council votes to deny Seeno project; City Manager tries to keep it alive...

At the October 7 City Council meeting, the Council voted to deny the Seeno project (527-acre Business Park in north Benicia). After hearing the results of a traffic study, and much deliberation, three of the five Council members remained unsatisfied with the sufficiency of the proposed mitigation measures which attempted to address the project's harmful impact on air quality and public health caused by excessive traffic.

Around 1 AM, Council took a vote on a Resolution to Approve the EIR Addendum (which was necessary in order to approve the project). It failed, 3 No votes (Patterson, Campbell, Ioakimedes), 2 yes votes (Hughes, Schwartzman). Therefore, the project could not be approved. City Attorney was instructed to bring forth a Resolution to Deny the project at the next Council meeting.

At the Oct. 21 Council meeting, City Manager Erickson submitted a report recommending that the Council “continue” the Seeno Item until the Nov. 18 City Council meeting because one of the five Council members (Campbell) was absent. He also produced several resolutions for their consideration. In addition to producing a resolution to deny the project and the EIR Addendum (as staff had been instructed to do), he also presented a resolution to approve the project (!) and he made a recommendation that the Council enter into “facilitated” discussions with the Developer to consider additional project requirements that might enable project approval.

Lacking a fifth vote, the Council did not act on the various resolution, and instead voted to "Continue the Item" to the Nov. 18 Council meeting.

With that as background, Roger Straw submitted the following column to the Benicia Herald:


Rebuilding Eroded Trust
By Roger Straw
Benicia Herald, Guest column, October 29, 2008

In recent statements before and during the October 21 City Council meeting, I believe that our City’s professional staff exercised their authority in a questionable manner.

Prior to the meeting, City Manager Jim Erickson, Community Development Director Charlie Knox and City Attorney Heather McLaughlin submitted a Staff Report that many feel ignored the will of the Council. Many feel that in bypassing the will of our elected representatives, staff has thwarted the will of the citizens of Benicia, who elected the Council.

The record will show that on October 7, Council voted 3-2 in a very clear and difficult decision, to not go forward in considering the Benicia Business Park as proposed by Seeno and Discovery Builders.

After the motion and before the vote on October 7, Councilmember Ioakimedes said, “I have a question for the City Attorney: the motion that's on the floor right now is the resolution that is on [page] B45. There will be another motion for B47?”

McLaughlin replied, “No. There'll be another motion if you approve B45, to approve the resolution that's on page 183.” She went on, “The part that's on 47, and the part that's exhibit B, which is on page 110, will be included as part of the resolutions, so you don't need a separate action on those.”

Ioakimedes then said, “But if there's a vote to deny, then there isn't any subsequent vote, is there?”

McLaughlin: “Right.” Ioakimedes: “Ok. That's ... Thank you.”

Mayor Elizabeth Patterson then called upon Councilmember Alan Schwartzman.

Schwartzman, addressing McLaughlin, said, “…Ok, so if the one we've got on the table now passes, we can go back to the table, and think about other conditions. If the one that we have on the table now fails, we don't go any further, we're done. Is that the way I understand it?”

McLaughlin: “Well, then I would suggest that we do a Resolution of Denial. You all could direct me to go back, using the model from June 3rd, with the findings or whatever you came up with.”

I find this record explicit, and without loopholes. The vote to approve CEQA documentation failed, 3-2, under deadline to pass, and the city attorney was directed by the mayor at the end of the meeting -- and agreed -- to return to the next meeting with a formal “Resolution to Deny” to conclude the rejection of the Seeno project.

Contrary to staff’s suggestion on October 21 that a “no” vote on a motion to approve leaves wiggle room for more consideration, the reason for a formal Resolution to Deny is not to state positively an affirmation which was not yet voted. The resolution is a formal statement with legal findings to solidify -- for the record and for legal reasons -- that a no vote has been taken.

Benicia needs to sit up and take notice of all this. Not only because of the stakes in approving or denying the current Seeno project, but for reasons of good and trustworthy government.

It is my understanding that staff brought forward its controversial recommendation on October 21 based not only on its rather manufactured reading of Council’s action on October 7, but that certain comments were conveyed in writing by Ioakimedes after the vote that could have been interpreted – or misinterpreted – as a wish to keep the current proposal open for discussion.

At issue here is not whether City staff should be fired, but how to regain trust after a major blunder. The human heart does not regain trust easily, and the public, having come to a high degree of respect for all five Council members despite their differences, now faces a huge hurdle in understanding the motives and honor of those who serve the Council, and by extension, the public.

Over the course of the next month, we are told that all stakeholders will be invited to sit down in professionally facilitated meetings to discuss the project, in hopes of agreement and approval at Council’s November 18 meeting. One of the outcomes of those meetings is likely to be a regained sense of trust among us all, or a further erosion of trust.

Roger Straw is a member of Benicia’s Green Gateway Group. For more information on the group, visit