When I wrote in November about how the mayor of Benicia was effectively muzzled from speaking about a pending city decision with nationwide importance, I thought the debate was over climate change. Now I learn the real concern is over democracy itself.
My Nov. 18 blog post concerned the City Council’s decision to make public an opinion on whether the mayor should be allowed to speak freely with voters about Valero’s application to convert its Benicia refinery to receive crude from the Baaken Oil Shale by rail. The decision is huge because fracking the crude is only profitable if the oil can reach refineries and the global market. Benicia’s refinery and port are key components to success.
Locally, Benicians and Californians living along the rail lines are fearful of train cars filled with the highly volatile crude rumbling through their communities twice a day. It’s a highly charged dispute that has drawn in Attorney General Kamala Harris, who chastised the city for only studying the effects on Benicia and not the effects along the entire rail line through California.
When the City Council voted to make public the opinion, written by an attorney hired by the city attorney, the decision was Mayor Elizabeth Patterson had overstepped her bounds.
Why? Because local politicians can advocate for new laws, but when they are holding a public hearing or ruling on a permit — acting more like judges than legislators — the permit applicant’s right to appear before an unbiased body trumps the legislator’s right to freely express an opinion.
Peter Scheer, the executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, writes in Sunday’s Insight section that this growing practice of advising City Council members to censor themselves is deleterious not just to political debate over important and engaging local issues but to democracy. By giving City Councils this dual role and then advising them to censor their own speech, we discourage civic participation on the concerns constituents care about most.
By Peter Scheer Jan 2, 2015 SF Gate
.....The line separating legislative from quasi-judicial decisions is barely discernible to lawyers who practice in the government arena — much less to the amateur politicians who predominate on legislative bodies of cities, counties, school districts and the like.Moreover, even in cases where the line is ultimately visible, elected officials may have no way of knowing, well in advance of the decision, whether the issue will be presented to the council as a legislative matter or a quasi-judicial matter.
Faced with this uncertainty, many council members do the only safe thing: They censor themselves..... more here
Rail safety is back in the spotlight after a new warning from federal regulators.
CBS News January 3, 2015
The National Transportation Safety Board is urging railroads to take immediate action following its investigation of a derailment in Kansas. No one was hurt in the derailment, but it raised new questions about whether America's rail network -- carrying cargo and passengers -- is as safe as it could be, CBS News' Mark Albert reports. [video at site]....
..."What we know is the regulators are behind the curve," said former NTSB chair Deborah Hersman, who sounded the alarm about crude oil shipments in April. "We're losing cars. We're losing millions of gallons of petroleum, and we aren't prepared."
Eight days later, train cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along the James River in Virginia.