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Local civic group discusses Chevron’s role in community

on January 6, 2010

The Point Richmond Neighborhood Council has about 400 members and $4,485 and change in its general fund budget.

But those stats don’t tell the tale-of-the-tape in terms of the spirit of this small but informed band of loyal members. And the five-member board makes sure that members – all residents of the city’s quaint historic district – stay up to speed on the issues that affect them.

The council holds a meeting in the Point’s branch library building the last Wednesday of each month.

“We don’t have a lot of power,” said Peter Minkwitz, the council’s president. “But we do represent and inform the citizens of Point Richmond.”

Chevron engineer Megan Bleckinger chats with resident Gary Bracken.

Chevron engineer Megan Bleckinger chats with resident Gary Bracken.

But on last Wednesday, the neighborhood council’s meeting was mostly about the biggest entity that has ever been affiliated with Richmond: Chevron Corp.

Chevron, which operates a 2,900-acre local refining facility, is locked in legal and political struggles with the city over the scope of operations and the level of taxation and fees. Meanwhile, the corporation has upped its community outreach work and charitable donations to local residents and organizations.

“We were invited as part of Chevron’s neighborhood outreach program to tour the refinery earlier this month (December),” Minkwitz said in an interview before the meeting. “So, we went, and now we report to the community.”

Minkwitz and his colleagues told a smaller-than-normal holiday audience of about 15 residents – and one Chevron representative – of he and his colleague’s impressions of the guided tour of the refinery.

“I think I speak for the group that was there,” Minkwitz said. “We were pretty impressed with what Chevron is doing, just this refinery.”

Often glancing at his notes, Minkwitz rattled off statistics and anecdotes from the tour to the gathering of impassive-faced members.

Board member Sue Rosenof was similarly positive. The air-borne plumes that residents often see emanating from the refinery are actually harmless steam, she said, adding that she believed it.

Point Richmond Neighborhood Council President Peter Minkwitz.

Point Richmond Neighborhood Council President Peter Minkwitz.

“It didn’t feel like they were trying to say what we wanted to hear,” Rosenof told the group.

But Rosenof also voiced what some members said they suspect – that the tour was in part an effort to rebuild public support. In the past few years voters have elected a green mayor, whose platform was buttressed with criticism of Chevron, and passed Measure T, a tax increase aimed at the corporation. A judge ruled against the voter-approved tax hike last month.

“Right up front they said they know that they really do need to work on getting a better relationship with their neighbors,” Rosenof said.  “They know what’s going on, they read the papers like we read the papers, but the people there were willing to answer all our questions.”

In February, Chevron agreed to pay the city $28 million in a legal settlement, after a city-commissioned audit found the company had under-paid taxes for years.

Once the loose presentation concluded, one resident, Jean Womack, spoke up to criticize what she said were wrongfully negative depictions of the corporation in historical literature.

“The oil companies are always described … as being robber barons,” Womack said.

But a few other residents disagreed, and were not moved by the observations relayed to them by the board members.

Resident Mike Parker questioned the corporation's motives.

Resident Mike Parker questioned the corporation's motives.

Resident Mike Parker spoke in a near-shout as he criticized Chevron’s efforts.

“It’s not out of the goodness of their hearts” that Chevron is conducting tours and dispatching representatives around the community, Parker said. “It’s because of the pressure put on them by this community.”

Parker added that he saw Chevron’s outreach as a political ploy.

“The population voted for measure T, Chevron lost and it lost badly in that, and so now they’re spending a lot of money on public relations,” Parker said. “While they’re giving you these tours, they’re spending huge amounts of money in order to appeal their property taxes.”

City Councilman Tom Butt also attended the meeting. Butt had sharp words for Chevron, which he claimed eluded payment of millions in taxes to the city over the years before this year’s audit and legal settlement.

The political fallout continues to be felt, he said.

“It’s had an effect on the council and how they deal with Chevron,” Butt said.

Councilman Tom Butt said relations between the council and Chevron were strained.

Councilman Tom Butt said relations between the council and Chevron were strained.

Megan Bleckinger, a chemical engineer for Chevron, attended the meeting. Although she spoke sparingly during the open forum, and never directly addressed the various allegations made against the corporation, she chatted with residents afterward and handed out contact information.

“I’m just happy that there is an open debate here about Chevron’s place in the community,” Bleckinger said. “Everybody can contact me anytime, and I can do my best to get answers to any questions they have.”

Minkwitz said after the meeting that he was pleased with how it unfolded. He explained that his aim was not to put an overly positive gloss on Chevron or his tour of the facility, but to avoid getting mired in unproductive talks.

“You can’t get too caught up in the big macro analysis, ” Minkwitz said, adding that he wanted to keep focus on what is best for Richmond, now and in the future.

20100103_chevronaudio.mp3| Local community group discusses Chevron.

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