Benicia Herald Candidate Questionnaire: Steve Young

From the Benicia Herald, by Galen Kusic; responses by Steve Young, September 20, 2020

COVID-19 economic recovery for businesses and the City. While the City has offered grants, services and accommodations to help local businesses survive during the pandemic, what will you do to further assist businesses while also following state and federal guidelines to keep citizens safe? What is your plan toward economic recovery for businesses and the City?

Unfortunately, the City has been too slow to react. I made two proposals to the Council, both of which were rejected and both of which are still worthy of pursuing. My proposal in late March for Downtown Dollars, under which the City (through Benicia Main St) would issue $100 certificates to 500 persons economically affected by the pandemic to be spent at any local small business or restaurant, was defeated by a 3-2 vote for reasons that were described only as “not well thought out”. (The City of Martinez has recently adopted the exact same program, using private donations). That program was a good idea then, and is a good idea now. My other idea, which was also supported by a number of downtown restaurants, would have closed a portion of First Street on Friday and Saturday nights, as we do with the Farmer’s Market, to allow restaurants to move into and serve in the street. Unfortunately, with the season coming to an end, we may have missed our opportunity. 

Regarding COVID-19 testing; While Benicia currently has the second lowest COVID-19 case numbers in Solano County, what will you do to increase testing available to residents and especially businesses, first responders and City employees?  

The testing done by Solano County is, understandably, focused on larger cities like Vallejo and Fairfield where they can presumably test many more people than in our relatively small town. While CVS is now offering free tests, they are available only in Vallejo, and not at their Benicia store. We can and should be speaking with their corporate offices to see about making that service available locally. Our lack of medical clinics or hospitals also adds to the difficulty in securing local sources of testing. Fortunately, Vallejo is not too far away.

The City Council recently voted to hire a part time Equity and Diversity Manager and to follow several policies demanded by Black Lives Matter in the wake of recent police murders. This major step toward racial equality is both groundbreaking and the first of its kind in Benicia and the county. What will you do if elected to further enhance racial equality, not only within Benicia, but the region and world? 

I think we need to acknowledge that systemic racism is real, that white privilege is real, and that inherent bias exists in all of us. There is a need for greater racial diversity in the City workforce and the community as a whole. Part of increasing diversity is to provide more affordable housing opportunities. As far as enhancing racial equality in the region and the world, the Mayor must walk the walk, not just talk the talk. 

What police reforms will you support if elected? What policies would you like to see implemented in Benicia to help further improve community relations, especially with communities of color?

Requiring body cameras to be activated for every interaction with citizens; requiring collection of data on race of all persons involved in traffic stops; create a committee consisting of Council and community members to hear complaints/allegations of racial harassment. To focus on de-escalation tactics in training and to reject surplus military hardware when offered. To actively seek out a wide diversity in applicants for city employment and for city Boards and Commissions. 

Benicia is extremely susceptible to sea level rise. While the City has taken steps to address this issue, more needs to be done to combat aggressive climate change. What will you do if elected to address not only sea level rise, but climate change as a whole while working to further implement the City’s recently adopted Climate Action Plan?
I introduced an amendment to our recently adopted Climate Emergency resolution that required the City to first consider purchasing electric vehicles when replacing the City fleet. I also am on the board of SolTrans, who is actively moving to transition to electric and CNG buses.  We should consider a requirement for installation of solar on all City facilities, and all newly constructed buildings. Climate change is real and its impacts are likely to become more intense. More droughts and hotter weather is a near certainty. In addition to needing to protect our Wastewater Treatment Plant from the rising waters, we should also consider the issue of water sustainability by considering the implementation of a water re-use project. Currently Valero uses more (untreated) water than the rest of the City combined. While we need to continue providing water so they can operate, we need to look at this project as a way to preserve the water we do have. Maintaining water availably is essential to our growth and development.

Valero is the largest employer and generator of tax revenue for Benicia, but also the biggest polluter. The company donates to countless Benicia and Solano County charities and schools. Yet, fossil fuels continue to decimate our ecosystem. If elected, how will you continue to embrace Valero's economic and charitable contributions while also demanding cleaner policies and safety for Benicia residents? 

While Valero should be justly praised for their contributions to local businesses and charities, there continues to be a need for better communications and transparency. All flaring incidents, whether planned or unplanned, must be immediately disclosed to the City, and the City must immediately pass that information on to the community. Many people have health issues that are impacted by the releases that accompany flaring. The installation of air monitors around the facility must be completed, and the information from the monitors must be available to the public in real time. Plans for expansion or changes in their operation should be disclosed to the public at the earliest possible moment to allow for maximum public understanding and discussion. We should ask Valero to commit to regular, public meetings with the City and public to address both their planned improvements as well as community concerns.

A major issue affecting Benicia residents is no limit on campaign contributions. There is a large cross section of bi-partisan resident support in Benicia to get big money influence out of politics. If elected, what steps will you take to eradicate corporate influence from Benicia’s elections? 

Benicia actually does have a fairly strict set of our own campaign regulations. The problem is that corporations and unions have formed PAC’s that are not subject to those relatively strict limitations. While candidates are limited to raising and spending $32,000 (with individual donations limited to $620), there is no limitation on what PAC’s can spend. In 2018, a PAC (Working Families to Elect Christina Strawbridge and Lionel Largaespaeda and defeat Kari Birdseye for Benicia City Council), was funded by Valero and various unions, and spent substantially to elect their preferred candidates. The campaign they ran was very negative and divisive, and was roundly denounced by all the candidates in the race. This type of negative campaigning left a bad taste in the mouths of many Benicia voters.  But it was successful, and their preferred candidates were elected.  In December, 2019 Valero announced that they were providing an additional $200,000 to influence the 2020 Mayor and Council race. If they spend that amount, it will be more than will be spent by all the Mayor and Council candidates combined.  I disagree with the Citizen’s United decision that allows this type of activity, and believe the decision of who should be elected to the City Council should be left to local voters.

Affordable housing continues to be a major problem within the City. If elected, what will you do to increase affordable housing for working families, single mothers, homeless veterans and disabled/mentally ill residents while further addressing the racial and socio-economic inequities within Benicia?  

The State will be applying increasing pressure on the City to increase our production of affordable housing-which has been essentially zero for the last decade. With the loss of many affordable housing finance techniques at the state and federal level, it is nearly impossible to produce affordable ownership housing. New rental housing, if a portion is affordable, is the key to making the City more accessible to people who have been shut out due to high prices and zoning that restricts the ability to build multi-family housing The City will need to be willing to consider re-zoning many of the remaining vacant parcels in single family neighborhoods to allow for construction of 2-4 unit properties. In addition, we should consider raising our density and height limits. Our current restrictions make it very unlikely a project of affordable housing could be financed or constructed. 

As Benicia continues to grow in popularity, if elected, what will you do to increase tourism and recreation opportunities within the City? What are some of your ideas to improve recreation opportunities for residents and tourists while maintaining the quaint, small town atmosphere that residents love? 

One of our biggest attributes, and attractions for tourists, is our proximity to the water. We should increase our walking trails along the waterfront near downtown, including from the Yacht Harbor to the Arsenal. We should consider allowing more commercial and retail development in the areas bordering downtown.  The existence of more restaurants, art galleries and small businesses on and around First Street would help attract those important tourist (and local) visits. I would also like to see the owner of the Majestic Theater agree to sell the building. I believe there are potential buyers willing to not only buy the theatre, but also willing to invest the substantial needed to turn it into a lively venue for music, plays and films. That project alone would be a focus and stimulus for the re-imagining of First Street.

As the cannabis industry continues to grow in Calif., how do you intend to utilize this economic boom for Benicia's benefit? Smaller cities than Benicia have seen tremendous returns with no public safety issues, while larger cities like Oakland have experienced a significant amount of crime. With a referendum on the ballot in November, will you follow the will of the people as to whether more cannabis businesses should be permitted within the City limits? If the public does call for more cannabis businesses, what is your plan to implement this safely for the best economic benefit of residents?

The City has, unfortunately, not had a consistent approach to this issue. In 2016, Prop. 64 (which legalized possession for adults, as well as giving cities the right to allow other forms of cannabis businesses) passed with 63% of Benicians in favor. There followed almost 20 meetings debating, primarily, the issue of retail dispensaries. The Council in 2017 adopted a set of criteria and an elaborate application and vetting process for potential applicants, with the expectation two dispensaries would emerge from the process. 9 applicants paid the City $20,000 apiece to apply, and also thousands in rent to secure sites, but the election of 2018 put in a new Council. That Council changed the rules mid-stream, adding buffer requirements which would have precluded any dispensary from being able to operate. This was to me, inherently anti-business and unfair to businesses who were willing to invest significantly to join the Benicia business community. Only under threat of a lawsuit by one of the applicants did the Council allow a single dispensary to be approved, while banning all future dispensaries. Measure D on the November ballot asks Benicia voters to weigh in on the question of whether they, in fact, approve of at least one additional dispensary. Although I have consistently voted to allow dispensaries (and the serious taxes they pay), I was the only Council member who pledged to honor the will of the voters and to oppose future dispensaries if Measure D is defeated. Neither Ms. Strawbridge nor Mr. Campbell agreed to do make that pledge to adhere to the will of the voters. I believe the City’s vetting process, led by the Police Chief, was very thorough, and would use it to review any future application. While some dispensaries have been victims of crime in other cities, the vast majority of legal dispensaries are very diligent about their security issues. Hopefully the federal government will re-classify cannabis as a non-Schedule 1 drug and allow banks to do treat legal cannabis businesses like any other business. That would go a very long way in reducing dispensaries as potential targets of crime. The image of dispensaries being places where young people hang out and smoke in the parking lot is not real. Many cannabis consumers in Benicia are baby boomers in their 60s, who simply want a safe, local place to make their purchases, many of which are used for medicinal purposes.

With the sudden departure of the City Manager, if elected, it appears one of the first tasks will be hiring a new full-time City Manager. What qualities, qualifications and insight are you looking for in the chief officer to run the City?  

Appointing the City Manager is one of the most important decision a City Council will make. I would be looking for a person who is well grounded in basic City operations, so prior city manager experience would be preferable. We have a great set of Department Directors who can, and should, be allowed to operate with a level of independence while still reporting to the City Manager. Obviously, that person would need to have sound judgment and decision making, be accessible to the community, and be able to communicate the Council’s direction to the workforce as well as the community as a whole.