Vallejo's Shadow Government

Back in March and April of 2014, the city of Vallejo asked residents to talk about their values and vision for the future as part of a community-wide effort to develop Guiding Principles.  According to the city web site:  “The Guiding Principles define the kind of community Vallejoans want, describing our shared values and our vision for our city.  Working together, Vallejo residents, businesses, and community groups have developed this short list of statements that will guide the General Plan Update, the Sonoma Boulevard Specific Plan, and the Zoning Code Update over the next three years.”

But while this public process played out, another group began meeting behind closed doors to share their own values and vision for the future of our city, out of the public eye and without the knowledge of some of our elected officials.  This shadowy group includes select city officials and staff, county level political operatives, and private big money interests.  Their vision for the future of Vallejo looks very different from the vision developed with public input through the general plan process.

The Mare Island Straits Economic Development Committee (MISEDC) was formed in April of 2014, and organized by councilmember Jesus Malgapo who serves as its chair.  MISEDC explicitly states it is not a formal City Commission but rather defines itself as: “an ad hoc Citizens Committee of the City of Vallejo.”  It is nothing of the sort.  A look at the committee roster confirms that these are not the kind of ordinary city residents and business owners that participated in the public planning process:

Mare Island Straits Economic Development Committee Members -

Jess Malgapo, Vallejo City Councilmember
Pippin Dew-Costa, Vallejo City Councilmember
Rozzana Verder-Aliga; Vallejo City Councilmember
Mel Orpilla, District Representative for Mike Thompson
Tom Bartee, District Director for Assembymember Bill Dodd
Alex Pader, District Representative for Senator Wolk
Belinda Smith, District Representative for Supervisor Seifert
Michael Wilson, District Representative for Supervisor Hannigan
Steve Bryan, President, ORCEM America
Matt Fettig, Vallejo Marine Terminal (VMT)
Blaise Fettig, Vallejo Marine Terminal (VMT)
Steve Dileo, President, Mare Island Dry Dock LLC
Christina Snyder, Vice President, Mare Island Dry Dock LLC
Anthony Intintoli – San Francisco Bay Water Emergency Transportation Authority
Tom Sheaff, Vice President Lennar Mare Island
Phil DuPuis, Senior Business Development Manager, Kiewit
Danny Bernardini - Napa Solano Building Trades
City Staff: Mark Sawicki, Kathleen Diohep, Fiona Stryker, Roland Rojas
David Kleinschmidt - City of Vallejo Public Works Director
Erin Hanford; Project Manager, Mare Island, City of Vallejo
Mark O’Brien; City of Vallejo Consultant

A representative citizen's committee?  Hardly.  Propel Vallejo, the general plan update process that drafted the Guiding Principles, is the true citizen's committee.  Mare Island Straits Economic Development Committee represents a group of self-appointed elites doing what works best for them in secret, secure in the belief that voters in Vallejo are too disengaged, disorganized, and uninformed to do anything about it.  The involvement of the three Jump Start city councilmembers and city staff makes this look like much more than some run-of-the-mill ad hoc citizen's committee.

The public and private priorities stand in stark contrast.  The city web site emphasizes the broad base of support for its official sanctioned planning vision:  “Collaborating successfully with local community organizations, we also took extra steps to include students at Vallejo High School, residents of South Vallejo, and members of local community groups in the conversation to make sure they had a voice in the process.”  In July of 2014 the city council officially approved the Guiding Principles developed with community participation.  They include:

5. Collaborative Civic Engagement
Vallejo identifies its challenges and takes constructive actions to address them. It is a place with strong, collaborative partnerships between government, residents, and local businesses and where challenges are addressed proactively, drawing on lessons learned from their own experience and from other communities.

6. Active, Participatory Community
Vallejo supports and depends on active community participation. Vallejo provides timely and understandable information on planning issues and projects, and community members participate directly in shaping plans and policies for the city’s future.

How does the Mare Island Straits Economic Development Committee process, already months old at the time the above language was approved by the city council, fit with the process described by these Guiding Principles?  Not even close, it’s the polar opposite.  Not only was the public not informed of the activities of this group, three of our elected councilmembers were cut completely out of the loop and were not even aware of the existence of MISEDC until very recently.  

And how does the vision for the future of Vallejo favored by these would-be power brokers match up with the vision created by the citizens who participated in the city planning process?  Again, they are entirely different things.  Residents want a healthy livable city that treasures and preserves the beauty of its waterfront.  The Guiding Principals include the following:

7. Healthy Community
Vallejo promotes the health of its residents and recognizes the value of a proactive, preventative approach to health. All Vallejo neighborhoods have easy access to healthy food, including organic food and locally grown food from school and community gardens.

8. Beautiful City
Vallejo values and showcases the City’s beauty, historic character, compatible architecture, abundant trees, and local ecology. Gateways into the community make positive, welcoming impressions, and Vallejo’s pride is displayed on every block in the way people care for their homes, gardens, businesses, and neighborhoods.

9. A Place People Want To Be
Vallejo’s vibrant downtown, attractive waterfront and open spaces, livable neighborhoods, and varied destinations draw people from the Bay Area and beyond. Vallejo is a place where people of all ages want to be, day and night — to live, work, shop, and recreate.

10. Iconic Waterfront
Vallejo treasures its waterfront as a centerpiece of the community, with a promenade, multi-use trails, natural open space, and access to water activities. It is a place for community gathering, exercising, socializing, shopping, dining out and having fun.

11. Environmental Stewardship
Vallejo pursues and promotes environmental education; protects and manages its watersheds, wetlands, and wildlife habitats; and embraces businesses and industries that are sensitive to the environment. It is a community where environmental stewardship is an asset that attracts people and businesses.

That is what ordinary residents of Vallejo want for their future.  So what is the purpose and vision of this ad hoc self-styled “citizens” committee running a parallel secret planning process?  How does it fit with the vision expressed in the official approved Guiding Principles?  According to committee agendas, obtained by public records request from the city, MISEDC has two stated goals:

1. Conduct research and take action necessary to secure federal funding for the long term and sustained dredging of Mare Island Straits for public, private, commercial use.

2. Explore how Mare Island Straits could be transformed into an economic driver for the City of Vallejo and Solano County."

In order to make the first goal happen, they have been informed by the Army Corps that they would have to demonstrate a revival of commercial activity.  The need to reintroduce the kinds of commercial activity that require regular dredging of the Napa River mouth explains the presence of the VMT/Orcem principals on this “citizens” committee.  Their proposed project would locate a deep water port and cement milling plant on the waterfront in south Vallejo. (See Green Cement or Green City?)

The proposed Orcem cement plant/VMT port project flies in the face of the Guiding Principals.  Cynically marketed as ‘green’ technology, the project would dump ozone, dust, and soot into south Vallejo neighborhoods already suffering the highest levels of respiratory disease in the state.  Truck traffic and a reactivated rail line would tie up traffic all across Vallejo.  While returning very little to the city in terms of revenue or jobs in compensation, it would undoubtedly provide some financial benefits to the region as a whole.  A willingness to sacrifice the well being of city residents to benefit private and regional interests is on display in this note from the September 2015 MISEDC agenda:

“You will recall that we have two goals; one is to search for dredging funds but our second goal is to explore how Mare Island Straits could be transformed into an economic driver for the City of Vallejo and Solano County.  In this regard, let us congratulate our committee members, "Vallejo Marine Terminal / ORCEM" as they reached  a key milestone with their project.  Their EIR was released very recently on September 3, 2015.  This document took many months to complete.  The 45 day public comment period is now underway.  Here's the link to the EIR.  Let us all wish them all the best and a successful public review.”

But the public review of the draft environmental impact report and economic analysis revealed a terrible project proposal for the city, and an even worse precedent for future development of the Vallejo waterfront.  This is a far cry from the vision expressed by residents of the city when given a voice in the planning process.  The secret plan to extend the Carquinez industrial corridor up the Mare Island Strait with polluting noisy industry is not what citizens of Vallejo have in mind for the future of their waterfront.  The three Jump Start councilmembers serving on this committee and Mayor Davis, who has appeared on their agenda as a speaker, will be voting to approve this project within a year unless the real citizens of Vallejo act to reassert democratic control of city government. 

It's gut check time, Vallejo.  Do those Guiding Principles mean anything, really?  Does our vote at the ballot box mean anything?  Not if we allow our elected officials to defy voter approved ballot measures as they did with Measure C.  Not if we allow a handful of elected and self-appointed elites to decide the future character of our waterfront in secret.   What about the voters who cast their ballots for the three elected councilmembers that have been cut out of the process entirely?  Aren’t we entitled to any representation at all in determining the future direction of the city?  Why should our interests be trumped by all these county level officials who we find right smack in the middle of this secret planning process?

This year and this election cycle will be pivotal in determining the character of Vallejo in the decades to come.  There's no room here for timidity or half measures.  The members of the Mare Island Straits Economic Development Committee are organized and committed.  They know what they want and are well on their way to getting it.  We have a clear choice in front of us - either we organize and commit ourselves to changing the political culture in Vallejo, or we acquiesce and live with the consequences.