I don’t think I have ever disagreed with Chip Johnson in a column he has written about Richmond, but I have to rise to Gayle’s defense for this one.
In Richmond, the mayor has little real power and few specific responsibilities, other than chairing meetings and nominating appointments to commissions and boards, subject to City Council approval.
The Charter states:
Sec. 2. Powers and Duties of the Mayor . The Mayor shall be a member of the City Council and shall have all of the powers and duties of a member of the Council unless otherwise specified herein. In addition, the Mayor shall have the following powers and duties:
(a) Political Position. The Mayor shall be the chief elected officer and ceremonial head of the City, responsible for providing civic leadership and taking issues to the people, and marshalling public interest in and support for municipal activity. The Mayor shall be concerned with the general development of the community and the general level of City services and activity programs and may develop and inform City residents of policies and programs which he or she believes are necessary for the welfare of the City.
By the Charter, the office is defined as a “political position,” and the mayor has unrestricted authority related to “policies and programs which he or she believes are necessary for the welfare of the City.” The only real power invested in the office is that of the “bully pulpit,” defined by Wikipedia as “a position sufficiently conspicuous to provide an opportunity to speak out and be listened to.”
People may disagree with her condemnation of Chevron for its Ecuador activities, but it is clearly within her job description if that’s what she believes is a part of her “civic leadership,” “taking issues to the people” and the “welfare of the city.”
Not just the mayor, but the entire City Council, has serious reservations about corporate power in general and Chevron in particular. In 2010, the City Council adopted Resolution 14-11, “Resolution of the Council of the City of Richmond, California, to Free Democracy from Corporate Control.”
Similarly, the entire City Council authorized a lawsuit against Chevron that accused the corporation of placing “profits and executive pay over public safety,” of failing to “exercise care in its ownership, operation, management, supervision, inspection, maintenance, repair and/or control” of the Richmond refinery, and of causing a diminution of Richmond property values, among many other things. For a copy of the Chevron lawsuit, click here.
Collaborating with and supporting litigation of other plaintiffs against a common defendant is an entirely common strategy for litigants.
On the other hand, the Richmond City Council has unanimously supported Chevron in its application to build its “Renewal Project.” Resolution 15-11, included the following:
WHEREAS, Chevron and the City of Richmond share the values, aspirations and requirements long shared and desired by the Richmond community, including that projects are developed in
A safe, healthy and environmentally responsible manner and that projects are done in accordance with local, state and federal laws and regulations
NOW, THEREFORE,BE IT RESOLVED that the City Council of the City of Richmond encourages Chevron to immediately apply for a new or amended permit, and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the City Council directs the city manager to make processing a new or amended permit a high priority, to assign necessary staff, engage
Required consult ants and take other appropriate measures as required to process a permit application as promptly as possible consistent with governing laws and regulations, and;
BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED that the Richmond City Council hereby directs the City Manager to meet with Chevron staff to develop a permit process and timeline and to report regularly
to the Council and Richmond community to ensure transparency and to allow for public input with a goal for completing the Richmond Renewal Project by fall 2011.
In short, the City Council, including the mayor, has been supportive of Chevron in the corporation’s positive activities and often critical in its harmful activities, a balanced approach. In my mind, this is the “common ground” of which Johnson speaks.
As far as Ecuador goes, that saga is far from being resolved. Of course Chevron is proclaiming its innocence, but the only litigation completed to date has gone against Chevron.
Yes, as Johnson says, Richmond is dependent on “oil revenue,” but does that mean the City or the mayor should sell themselves for silver?
I can tell you that the mayor would like nothing better than to wean Richmond from its “dependent relationship on the dirty money gleaned from oil production,” and that we are all doing everything we can to “find alternative sources of revenue, be it property or sale taxes or the attraction of new business enterprises to the city.”
Ironically, one of the major impediments to expanding the tax base is the existence of Chevron with its history of fires and explosions. Last year’s fire lowered the city’s assessed value by $1.8 billion.
When you have an activist corporation like Chevron that routinely spends millions of dollars trying to buy elections in Richmond and unseat its mayor, a little counteractive activism is hard to find fault with.
Richmond's activist-mayor blurs line over Chevron
Updated 6:39 pm, Thursday, October 17, 2013
Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin is an environmental crusader on a quest to conquer the dragon that leaves a wasteland on any ground it occupies.
And in McLaughlin's world, the dragon is Chevron, which operates one of the nation's largest refineries on the shoreline of the industrial city she heads. But her latest campaign, to hold the company accountable for environmental damage in Ecuador, seems a bit beyond her job description.
It's not unusual for a Bay Area activist-mayor to intertwine personal politics with the duties and responsibilities of being an elected officer. And in the case of McLaughlin, this characteristic falls right in line with the philosophy of the Green Party.
And that, in a nutshell, is the rub.
McLaughlin, a Green Party member, visited Ecuador last month and took part in a campaign to publicize a federal trial now under way in U.S. District Court. Chevron wants the court to nullify an $18 billion judgment made against the oil giant by an Ecuadoran court in 2011. The judgment, Chevron claims, was based on fraudulent litigation.
The case stems from claims that oil production operations in Ecuador damaged the nation's rain forest, contaminated ground water and caused health problems among indigenous citizens. Chevron maintains that its subsidiary, Texaco, which ceased operations in 1992, cleaned up the site to the government's specifications.
In McLaughlin's worldview, she is waging war against what she called "international corporate domination" - and believes there's an inextricable link between the company's dealings with Ecuador and its dealings with the city of Richmond on everything from tax rates to health and safety precautions at the refinery.
"What I learned from this trip is that Chevron is running from its responsibility," she said. "Through electoral contributions they have dominated the electoral field and they have truly polluted our democracy."
McLaughlin is quick to point out that no city money was used to pay for her five-day trip last month. But on Tuesday the two-term mayor used her office to convene a news conference and announce the city's solidarity with the indigenous Ecuadorans.
At the same time, McLaughlin has flatly refused two written requests from Chevron officials to meet and discuss the issue with her.
In letters sent to McLaughlin, the company accused McLaughlin of spreading misinformation about the case.
I'm no fan of Chevron or corporate greed, and I have excoriated them for their tactics in previous columns. But I do know the difference between an elected official and an activist.
A mayor will meet with anyone who has legitimate city business - even if they don't share a common point of view. An activist committed to a cause has no responsibility to listen to anyone but their cohorts.
I'm not suggesting for an instant that McLaughlin join the ranks of Chevron's lapdogs on the Richmond City Council, but it's equally irresponsible to toss a wrench into the relationship between the city and the oil giant.
As a mayor, McLaughlin's job is to find common ground. She neither has to be beholden to Chevron nor interject her personal views into a legal case that has nothing to do with her role as the city's highest elected official. Her actions only serve to drive the wedge between the two entities even deeper. City officials and Chevron bickered for years over what constitutes a fair tax rate for both Richmond residents and the oil company. The city sued the company for damages from a 2012 fire that resulted in 15,000 residents seeking medical treatment.
But just like an oil well, the problem goes much deeper than the surface complaints.
In truth, Richmond relies on oil revenue for its existence as much as the company itself.
If Richmond truly wants to end its dependent relationship on the dirty money gleaned from oil production, then it's up to the city's elected officials to find alternative sources of revenue, be it property or sale taxes or the attraction of new business enterprises to the city.
Chip Johnson is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. His columns run on Tuesday and Friday. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @chjohnson.com