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Firefighters douse a flame at the Chevron oil refinery in in Richmond, California in this file photo taken August 6, 2012. REUTERS/Josh Edelson/Files (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENERGY ENVIRONMENT BUSINESS)

RICHMOND -- A divided City Council on Tuesday voted to enter talks with Chevron Corp. for a compensation package stemming from last summer's fire at the company's local refinery and to hire a high-powered law firm if an agreement is not reached within 30 days.

"We can take a free bite at the apple without sending Chevron into lockdown mode," said Councilman Jim Rogers, who proposed the item. "If we don't get there, we pursue litigation."

City Manager Bill Lindsay released a document earlier this month announcing the city's intent to hire San Francisco-based law firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, which represented victims of the 2010 San Bruno disaster caused by a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. gas line rupture. The firm remains in litigation stemming from the San Bruno fire and has handled more than 200 cases for clients seeking damages.

The council stopped short of hiring the firm immediately, an option supported by Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Council members Jovanka Beckles and Tom Butt.

"Acting smart after you've been burned over and over again is to take the kind of action that makes it clear we're serious," McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin noted that Chevron in the past has retained legal counsel in disputes with the city, most recently when appealing property tax assessments.

Without the needed four votes to hire the firm immediately, McLaughlin and her progressive allies joined Rogers' substitute motion.

Vice Mayor Corky Boozé and Councilman Nat Bates dissented.

"This motion is ill-conceived," Bates said, arguing that he would rather hear about the progress of talks before committing to hiring the firm.

The council motion calls for automatically retaining Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy in 30 days if the city does not reach a compensation agreement with Chevron. The firm would be retained on a contingency basis, meaning it will not be paid by the city unless it helps secure compensation from Chevron.

Lindsay intimated that he preferred Rogers' approach over immediately hiring the firm.

"I think that it would be appropriate to engage Chevron in some additional conversations before you file the lawsuit," Lindsay said. "You reserve your rights at any time to move forward with a lawsuit. It's worth some conversations first before you take the step of retaining legal counsel."

The Aug. 6 fire sent more than 15,000 residents to area hospitals with respiratory discomfort and other symptoms. The fire occurred when a corroded pipe ruptured in a refinery crude unit.

The state Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) found that the refinery was guilty of 11 "willful" violations and fined the corporation about $1 million, the highest fine in the agency's history. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board's investigation found that the pipe was recommended for replacement by Chevron inspectors as early as 2002.

No one on the council speculated about how much they believed Chevron owed the community for the health and economic effects of the fire.

In an email statement Wednesday morning, Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie said the corporation, " ... looks forward to continuing its ongoing discussions ... regarding how Chevron U.S.A. and the city can be effective community partners now and in the future."

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