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Try community input

Submitted by News Desk on Wed, 08/20/2008 - 10:00pm

WE ARE PLEASED that Chevron is making a major financial contribution to the Richmond community where it operates the Bay Area's largest refinery. But the way the company struck it's $61.6 million community benefits deal smells — and the stink is coming from both sides of the table.

On the same July night that the City Council approved Chevron's controversial proposal to modify its plant to enable refining of crude oil with higher sulfur content, it also approved the "Richmond Community Benefits Agreement." While the city could not legally extract money from the company as a condition of approval, there is little doubt that both sides see the contribution as a quid pro quo.

On Chevron's side, it ties its contributions to the issuance of specific permits for its project. Community fund installment payments are conditioned on timely approvals of the expansion project, and legal challenges to the project would endanger the community funding. This is hardly an altruistic contribution — it's a payoff.

On Richmond's side, some City Council members — especially Maria Viramontes and John Marquez — should be ashamed of their secret dealing with the company. As Times reporter Katherine Tam reported last week, they bypassed their city staff and negotiated details of the community agreement directly with the company. The public and city staff only saw the final document the night that the council approved it along with the refinery improvements. Such an important deal should have been exposed to the full sunshine of public review.

Then there's the issue of spending oversight. Some $10 million of the money is to go toward a fund to benefit nonprofits and community groups. An advisory board overseeing that fund is to consist of two members appointed by Chevron and three current or former members of the City Council. Those five are to then appoint two members from the community. Quicker than you could say "political opportunity," the council majority appointed three of its members who backed the Chevron deal — Nat Bates, Ludmyrna Lopez and Harpreet Sandhu — to serve on the committee. Bates and Sandhu are up for re-election in November. Critics rightly complained: Officials running for re-election should not be doling out funding to the same sorts of groups from which they will be seeking support.

From a macro level, the community benefits agreement directs money to worthy causes: $6.8 million for job training and placement, $11.3 million for public safety, $6 million to Brookside Health Clinic, $10 million in financial aid to area nonprofit groups, $5 million for the Bay Trail, $14.6 million for alternative energy projects and $5 million for other environmental mitigations.

But as Councilman Tom Butt and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin have noted, the proposed amounts aren't enough to build and maintain the Bay Trail or to sustain services long-term. Others carry no benefits to the city, and funding for an alternative energy project that Chevron would sell to the city under one scenario is nothing more than a business venture.

This could have — and should have — been a model for community support. Perhaps community input would have helped.