RICHMOND -- Top city administrators may hold the key to how and when Chevron repairs the burned crude unit that caused last summer's massive refinery fire that sent thousands to the hospital and cut gasoline production.

The City Council on Tuesday said those administrators need to hear from the public before they grant Chevron additional permission to rebuild the unit at one of the West Coast's major oil refineries.

"City Manager (Bill Lindsay) needs to have his own public meeting and benefit from public input on this complicated issue," said Councilman Jim Rogers.

The decision comes after weeks of public outcry since Chevron announced it would use chrome alloy replacement pipes in its No. 4 crude unit, which was damaged in the Aug. 6 fire that sent plumes of black smoke across the East Bay. Public officials and residents have complained that the decision was made before a U.S. Chemical Safety Board report, set to be released in January, that could recommend other materials. The fire was caused when a corroded metal pipe sprung a leak, releasing high-temperature gas oil.

Meanwhile, city and county building and fire inspectors had already begun signing off on permits in November, a process that has since been halted by a City Council resolution calling for the city to require the "best available technology" in the repair, and admonishing staff to gather more expert opinions.

Chevron plans to replace weakened support structures, pressure vessels, tanks, pumps and pipes. The company also intends to repair the cooling tower and motor control center and fix an array of instruments and electrical systems.

Council leaders on Tuesday reiterated recent complaints to staff about ensuring that permits are issued in an open and public manner. Council members have grumbled in recent weeks about learning though the media that permits had begun being issued.

"This project needs as much transparency as we can give it," Councilman Tom Butt said.

Lindsay agreed and said he and his staff must do better to provide timely information about the process.

"No one should even have to file a formal public information request," Lindsay said.

Greg Karras, a scientist for Communities for a Better Environment, said Tuesday's decision was key because Richmond has power to compel Chevron to rebuild the crude unit according to certain specifications.

"The city has unique local land use authority here," Karras said. "The city can use building permits and fire safety concerns to force Chevron to rebuild in a way that is safe, however that gets defined."

The council last month passed a resolution requiring that the refinery use the "best available technology" in rebuilding the unit in a way that achieves the highest safety and "reduces emissions."

Karras said the city may have little power to regulate or require reductions in emissions but that the safety requirement gives the city substantial power, should it choose to use it.

Chevron spokesman Derek Jansen issued a statement late Wednesday saying the refinery is committed to working "closely and transparently" with all government officials and investigators. "We look forward to continuing to work with the city to expeditiously receive permits and return the refinery to normal operations," the statement read.

The public meeting could be as soon as this month, but a date has not been set. The Chemical Safety Board will hold its own public meetings when it releases a metallurgical report on the types of metals that may be used to delay pipe corrosion, but permits could be issued before then, Lindsay said.

Rogers said it was crucial to ensure a major public meeting before any more permits were issued.

Chevron General Manager Nigel Hearne wrote in a November letter to the city and Bay Area Air Quality Management Board that he hopes to resume production at the unit in the "first quarter of 2013."

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com and follow Twitter.com/roberthrogers.