|Request Rejected to
Keep Bills a Secret
March 19, 2005
Since Richmond voters hiked their utility user tax to 10 percent, critics have claimed ChevronTexaco has not been paying its fair share.
The City Council approved a study to end the speculation. But the company, which pays half the $24 million total raised by Richmond homes and businesses through PG&E bills, has balked at making public a record of its energy use, saying that would compromise it with competitors.
To help expedite the study, Councilwoman Maria Viramontes asked the council this week to agree to hold such information in confidence, but a skeptical council said no.
"At the end of the day, we're trying to answer the question, is Chevron paying its fair share?" Viramontes said. "We can sue Chevron for the data (but) that's the issue they'd fight us on. If we vote on this tonight, we get rid of that excuse."
Distrust permeated the dais. Some doubted the company would supply accurate information, whether held in confidence or not. Some openly voiced skepticism as to whether dissenting council members would honor the privacy resolution.
The company agreed in 1986 to keep its share to a flat amount.
Some argue that pact puts the oil giant in arrears by $1.2 million.
The increase, passed in 2002, was intended to feed rising fire and police costs and, optimistically, parks, libraries and other city services. A new pension benefit quickly consumed the measure's proceeds.
ChevronTexaco representatives say the company never agreed to abide by the terms of Measure J.
Although the flat tax is a larger amount, it offers a known quantity and is easier to budget, said Chevron spokesman Dean O'Hair.
But even some who have defended the flat tax agreed with Councilwoman Gayle McLaughlin's claim that gas and electric use is not privileged information.
"There is no patent revelation when a company is asked to state how many units of gas it consumed, how many units of electricity it consumed," McLaughlin said. "Common sense needs to prevail here."
McLaughlin gave the council examples of news stories about ChevronTexaco withholding key information from state and U.S. Justice Department investigators.
"I, for one, want to remain able to question and investigate further," McLaughlin said.
Viramontes said her resolution clearly provided for a consultation with an uninvolved third party but would require that party to honor the confidentiality agreement.
"Once we vote on this, Chevron has to be cooperative and respond, then everyone in the city will know whether Chevron is paying its fair share," Councilman Nat Bates said.
"This just doesn't feel right to me," Councilman Tom Butt. "I'm very reluctant to adopt another layer of secrecy."
How they voted
On a motion to keep confidential ChevronTexaco's PG&E bills if the company produces them.
NO: Mayor Irma Anderson, Tom Butt, Richard Griffin, Gayle McLaughlin, Vice Mayor Jim RogersYES: Nat Bates, John Marquez, Mindell Penn, Maria Viramontes