Big Oil in Little Richmond 

Whose interests will the city council serve as it considers Chevron's latest upgrade proposal?

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Tensions between Chevron and Richmond are nothing new. The big oil company and the little city have a long-standing relationship that some might classify as synergistic, others as parasitic. Since its establishment by Standard Oil in 1902, the refinery has served as both the backdrop and lead actor in the city's ups and downs. As the largest taxpayer and employer in the city, Chevron — whose Richmond refinery is one of the oldest and most productive in the west — has a well-earned reputation for knowing how to sweet-talk city officials into giving it what it wants.

For years, Richmond was the virtual definition of a company town. And today there's plenty of debate about how much times have changed. "There was a time that Chevron basically owned the city council," said Councilman Tom Butt, who has served on the Richmond City Council for more than thirteen years and has been known to stand up to the company. Chevron long had a habit of picking off individual council members with promises of hefty donations to their personal projects. Today, Butt said, the company rarely makes direct contributions to political candidates, and instead takes a more indirect route by donating to their personal causes, or joining innocuous-sounding groups that then donate money. Butt said the company also tends to give to local organizations led by community leaders, which can hinder their ability to be critical of the corporation keeping them afloat. His own pet cause, the Rosie the Riveter Trust, has received around $10,000 over the past couple of years from Chevron. "You're not supposed to look a gift horse in the mouth," he noted.

Consequently, Richmond residents are not only wary of Chevron's environmental impact, they're also wary of their own city council's ability to make decisions unfettered by Chevron's influence. Even with the 2004 inauguration of their first Green Party Mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, Richmond's city council still stands divided on many issues involving Chevron. "The council has changed some since our mayor took office, but Chevron still has people in politics," said Dr. Henry Clark of the West County Toxics Coalition, a Richmond-based environmental justice nonprofit organization. "And here again, it's going to come down to politics."

Karras believes the city's elected officials have finally begun to establish their independence, but that the city's employees are lagging behind. "The staff has consistently helped Chevron cover this project up, and has done so while repeatedly failing to comply with the commissioners' directions that they analyze and address the environmental impacts of the project and quality of oil that Chevron is planning to refine," Karras said. He adds that the staff blatantly ignored addendums he suggested to the environmental report at the urging of the attorney general's office, which would have accounted for these oversights. "Staff and civil service isn't caught up with the progression of the elected officials," he said.

Veteran council members say the city's relationship with the company has changed tremendously in recent years. "They used to work really hard at relationships, for lack of a better word," Butt said. "And I think it paid off well for them. Several years ago, for whatever reason, they made a policy decision that they wanted to work at antagonizing the city council."

The changes seem to have arisen around the time of Chevron's 2001 merger with Texaco, and climaxed during Richmond's budget crisis in 2004. "At the worst possible moment in Richmond's history, they completely unplugged," said Councilwoman Maria Viramontes. The company stopped buying many products and services from local businesses, and managers stopped attending city events and pulled out of personal involvement with civic nonprofits. "It was a very bottom-line, cutthroat thing," Viramontes said. "You would get this disengagement at every level."

The city's 2004 budget crisis was accompanied by Chevron's introduction of a new Richmond refinery manager. According to an article in the East Bay Business Times, manager Jim Whiteside took it upon himself to cut at least $150 million in costs as part of the company's global reorganization following the Texaco merger. Whiteside, who cut 800 jobs in his first few months on the job, had a reputation as a "no-nonsense cost-cutter," according to the article. As part of his cost-cutting, he found a way to avoid paying the city's recently increased utility tax rate, which cost Richmond a cool $1.4 million.

Chevron has since sued the city twice, and negotiated a number of other tax appeals. Contra Costa County Tax Assessor Gus Kramer is currently grappling with an appeal that could cost the county $60 million in property taxes that Chevron claimed it overpaid between 2004 and 2006. Kramer said that's just business as usual for the county's oil giants. "Chevron is entitled to their opinion — jaundiced as it is by corporate greed," he said.

Kramer said Chevron's glossy brochures pledging that its project will "generate millions in tax revenues that could be used to fund city programs including public safety, street repairs, libraries and youth services" are extremely misleading. Last year, he went in front of the city's Design Review Board to say just that. "It's not that I'm against the project," Kramer said. "The reason I showed up that night and spoke before the review is that I didn't want the community or anyone to think that the property taxes are going to increase as a result of it."

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