Three Vallejo Councilmembers Must Recuse from VMT/Orcem Vote

A proposal to demolish historic structures and construct a private marine terminal serving large cargo vessels and a cement plant at the mouth of the Napa River has been a source of controversy in Vallejo for the past six years.

Protestors against VMT/Orcem gather in front of Vallejo City Hall in September 2016. Subsequently, the project was rejected by Vallejo’s Planning Commission before four councilmembers (now dubbed the “Orcem-Four”) have kept the proposed project alive. Photo by Joel Williams


Published: October, 2018


A proposal to demolish historic structures and construct a private marine terminal serving large cargo vessels and a cement plant at the mouth of the Napa River has been a source of controversy in Vallejo for the past six years. Three councilmembers are conflicted and should recuse themselves from upcoming votes on the project.


Vallejo City Councilmembers Rozzana Verder-Aliga—and two fellow council members running for reelec-tion—Jesus “Jess” Malgapo and Pippin Dew-Costa have demonstrated a well-documented improper level of bias prior to environmental review and approval of the project sufficient to undermine the intent and purpose of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). There are no tripwires or bright lines to cross that indicate when such a level of unacceptable bias prior to environmental review occurs. Instead, it must be assessed based on the totality of the circumstances.


In this case, the circumstances strongly indicate that these councilmem-bers should recuse themselves. They colluded in secret with special interest representatives and the applicants, using the Vallejo Marine Terminal (VMT) and Orcem Americas project to advance a private development initiative that undercuts the city’s public planning process.


The participants in this clandestine, well-organized effort left written records of their activity, subsequently revealed through public records requests. These communications reflect an early enthusiastic commitment by members of the city council to the VMT/Orcem project in the absence of any information regarding the potential negative environmental impacts.


By 2014, dueling city planning and development initiatives were underway, both public and private, aiming to shape the character of future development along the Mare Island Strait waterfront. The Vallejo City Council voted to form a Mare Island Economic Development Committee, which included then-councilmember and current Mayor Bob Sampayan. This official committee never convened a meeting. But council-members Malgapo and Dew-Costa organized a private ad hoc committee they named the Mare Island Straits Economic Development Committee (MISEDC), which councilmember Sampayan was not invited to join.


The committee soon added councilmember Verder-Aliga to its roster of members, along with the VMT/Orcem project executives and an assortment of local and regional special interest representatives and political donors, all with a stake in procuring federal funding to facilitate heavy industrial development along Vallejo’s waterfront. Councilmember Malgapo served as the committee chair, and reminded committee members in an August 19, 2014 email retrieved through a public records request that their activity must not be made public: “Reminder: Our meetings are privileged and attendance by invitation only.”


Councilmembers Sampayan, Katy Miessner and Robert McConnell re-mained unaware of the existence of the MISEDC secret committee, which was known only to four of the seven councilmembers (including then-Mayor Osby Davis, whom MISEDC records show was notified from the beginning). It would be well over a year before the excluded minority of councilmembers would begin to learn what had been going on behind the scenes.


Why did the ad hoc committee members feel a need to keep the activities of this unsanctioned organization hidden from the public and three of their fellow elected representatives? A look at the language emerging from the concurrent public planning process to update the Vallejo General Plan reveals a stark contrast between the public vision for the waterfront and the vision entertained by these special interests. Where the MISEDC members picture a marine superhighway and a subsequent renaissance of heavy industry on the city’s waterfront, the public planning process was demonstrating that a broad spectrum of the public had something very different in mind.


In July 2014, as the MISEDC councilmembers continued to meet behind closed doors, the entire city council officially approved new guiding principles to the city’s general plan developed with community participation. These principles included statements in support of an active, participatory and healthy community that features an iconic waterfront to present Vallejo as a beautiful city that pursues and promotes environmental stewardship.


There is no mention in these guiding principles of any desire to attract new heavy industry to Vallejo’s iconic waterfront. The MISEDC councilmembers made a conscious choice to put their own personal vision in place of the community vision developed through the general plan update, even as they voted to approve guiding principle language that embraces community participation.

  A majority of the Vallejo City Council went far beyond simply having a favorable opinion of the project prior to any impact analysis, but instead committed to the project at multiple levels in an organized effort hidden from public view. Their abandonment of objectivity is captured in the extraordinary documented measures taken to incorporate the VMT/Orcem project as an integral part of their private development plan for Vallejo’s waterfront without regard for environmental consequences.


The willingness of councilmembers to ignore city policy, commandeer public resources in support of a private initiative, repeatedly violate the noninterference clause in the City Charter, and betray the public trust in the open and participatory function of local government all serve to indicate an extreme and unacceptable level of bias. Three of these participants—Malgapo, Dew-Costa and Verder-Aliga—continue to serve on the Vallejo City Council, with Malgapo and Dew-Costa up for reelection in November.


VMT/Orcem made significant campaign contributions to the MISEDC councilmembers along with the county building trades-affiliated PAC, Jumpstart Vallejo. The latter group brings in members wearing safety vests to pack the chambers each time an action related to the VMT/Orcem project comes before the council. Their members would benefit from the temporary construction jobs created in developing the heavy industry infrastructure.


In the 2016 election cycle, the incumbent MISEDC councilmember up for re-election won, along with Hermie Sunga, who was also running on the Jumpstart slate of candidates. The local paper described him as councilmember Malgapo’s political mentor. Along with the three MISEDC participants on the council, they have formed a majority voting to keep the VMT/Orcem project alive, now dubbed the “Orcem-Four.”


Following extensive public and resource agency comments on a VMT/Orcem draft environmental report that revealed a number of significant impacts, city staff and consultants recommended in 2017 that the city reject the project and discontinue further environmental review and expenditure of resources. They found the industrial land use and impacts to be incompatible with the surrounding residential neighborhoods and the nearby elementary school. The planning commission subsequently voted to deny VMT/Orcem the site development and use permits with only one member dissenting.


When the applicants appealed the planning commission decision to deny the permits to the city council, the three MISEDC participants (along with Sunga) voted to uphold the appeal. They directed the city staff and consultants to finish a final EIR and draft a “Statement of Overriding Considerations” to allow a vote to approve the project in spite of the significant environmental impacts. A series of votes to certify a final EIR and approve the project could now come before the city council by the end of the year.


The MISEDC participants serving on the council unmistakably joined forces with the applicants long before any environmental review, and in private communication openly declared themselves to be on the same side as VMT/Orcem. The final EIR they now insist on finishing can only be regarded as a necessary step toward a vote to approve the project, rather than a genuine effort to generate the environmental information needed.


Claims that councilmembers Malgapo, Dew-Costa or Verder-Aliga can now weigh the relative merits of the project with an open mind are simply not credible.


They violated the public trust by colluding with the applicants in secret using public resources, looking to benefit their special interest friends and political supporters at the expense of local residents who would bear the brunt of the environmental impacts they failed to even consider.


The proper remedy to restore public confidence is recusal from all votes regarding VMT/Orcem by the three MISEDC councilmembers. Just as applicants have a right to a fair hearing in front of an objective decision-making body, so too do citizens have the right to expect transparency in the function of their local government. Residents have a right to the environmental protections afforded under CEQA without the process degenerating into an empty box-checking exercise in service of a foregone conclusion.  


The actions of councilmembers Malgapo, Dew-Costa and Verder-Aliga as participants in the MISEDC disqualify them as objective decisionmakers with regard to this project. Their votes to uphold the appeal from the planning commission should be nullified and that decision reversed. If the application comes before the city council in the future, they must recuse from any vote regarding the Vallejo Marine Terminal and Orcem Americas application.