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Some of the people attending the Richmond City Council's public comment meeting hold signs for and against Chevron's proposed refinery modernization project at the Richmond Auditorium in Richmond, Calif., on Tuesday, July 22, 2014. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)

RICHMOND -- City Council members, Chevron and the head of the governing board for West Contra Costa's floundering public hospital traded blame this week about how a $90 million community benefits package agreed to by the oil giant to secure city approval of its $1 billion Richmond refinery upgrade included nothing for the hospital, which is on the verge of closure.

Instead, the money that three council members negotiated in a series of private meetings with a Chevron lobbyist will go mostly toward their favored projects, including electric vehicle charging stations, a solar farm and scholarships for Richmond students.

The lobbyist, who also heads the health care board that runs Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo, says he wanted some money to go to the hospital, but key council members were unwilling; the council members deny that.

County health care officials have been scrambling for weeks to preserve some level of service at the safety net hospital, which operates the area's largest emergency room, and avert what they say would be a public health crisis resulting from its closure.

Some who opposed the Chevron deal groused about the echoes of Richmond's past, when local officials and business leaders carved up public dollars in smoke-filled rooms.


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"Council members worked out deals behind closed doors for dividing up the Community Benefits Agreement for pet projects and did not provide for Doctors Medical Center," mayoral candidate Mike Parker wrote in a statement after the council vote. "A community needs a hospital, just like it needs schools, parks and roads."

The lack of money for DMC in the massive benefits package also drew sharp criticism from the two council members who abstained from Tuesday's 5-0 vote approving the refinery modernization. The hospital treated thousands of local residents in the aftermath of a fire at the refinery two years ago.

The participants in the series of meetings that took place in a wine cellar, restaurant and the Point Richmond office of Chevron lobbyist Eric Zell gave different accounts of what transpired in the negotiations over the benefits package, which swelled from $30 million to $90 million in recent weeks.

Council members Tom Butt, Jim Rogers and Jael Myrick said they were told at the meeting that money from the benefits package wouldn't be made available quickly enough to help the hospital, which is expected to close or drastically reduce services in coming months. DMC officials on Friday announced that on Aug. 12 they would begin diverting ambulances, close the cardiac unit and cap inpatient beds at 50.

The Richmond City Council sits onstage during a public feedback meeting for Chevron’s proposed modernization project held at the Richmond Auditorium
The Richmond City Council sits onstage during a public feedback meeting for Chevron's proposed modernization project held at the Richmond Auditorium in Richmond, Calif., on Tuesday, July 22, 2014. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)

Butt said a key hurdle was that Chevron wanted most of the money to be distributed after it secured permits for construction, which could take six months or more. Only $5 million of the $90 million is guaranteed regardless of whether construction begins, according to Chevron, and that money goes to Rogers' programs.

Myrick said he proposed giving DMC half of the money earmarked for student scholarship programs in the benefits package, but was told it would be too little, too late.

Said Rogers: "Millions up front for DMC was a deal breaker. We pushed hard for DMC, and we got a definite no."

Zell, chairman of the West Contra Costa Healthcare District board, and a Chevron spokeswoman acknowledged Friday that most of the money from the benefits package would not be made available until the refinery project is cleared to break ground but dismissed any notion that they ruled out funneling money to the hospital.

"I gave (Butt, Rogers and Myrick) the facts about the status of DMC, and I said repeatedly if you're willing to give money to DMC, you should, we will put the money to good use," Zell said. "The only council member in that room that had a real interest in saving DMC was Jael (Myrick). I'm not saying they don't all want DMC to be saved, but DMC was not on their list of funding priorities.

"There wasn't the political will to do Jael's plan, and it wasn't me or Chevron standing in the way," he added.

"Zell's role in the negotiations, and failure to secure funds for DMC, led some to question his loyalties.

"Zell's duty as chair is to support the hospital," DMC nurse Seung Choo said Friday. "He went and negotiated with the city to get them money and he managed to get $90 million for the next 10 years but nothing for DMC, and I have to wonder why."

Nurses and doctors at DMC have been at odds with Zell and other local leaders about the best path to take in rescuing the hospital. Workers want the county to take control of the hospital and maintain current services, while Zell and management are focused on drastically downsizing the hospital or turning it into a free-standing emergency department.

Zell said he had no qualms about acting as both consultant for Chevron and chairman of the hospital board because Chevron was willing to fund the hospital and he was in a good position to advocate for it.

Butt, Rogers and Myrick became the city's de facto negotiators because they represent swing votes on the divided council. The final details were worked out in Zell's Point Richmond offices Tuesday morning, hours before the City Council meeting.

When the package came before the council, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles, advocates for DMC, abstained from the vote.

"Support for Doctor's Hospital should have been included in the Chevron package," McLaughlin said in an email Friday.

What was included was a package of projects favored by Butt, Rogers and Myrick. For Rogers, Chevron ponied up $18 million -- the amount of DMC's annual deficit -- for Electric City and Easy Go, transportation programs that include bike-sharing and electric vehicle charging stations. For Myrick, there is a $35 million scholarship fund for Richmond residents who graduate high school. Butt helped secure 60 acres of Chevron land -- valued at $10 million -- for a solar farm for Marin Clean Energy, a nonprofit of which he serves on the governing board.

"I don't know if we left money on the table or not," Butt said. "I've been called a sellout and disgrace, and others said they're proud of us. I don't know which is right. I don't think we'll ever know, but I felt like this was the best we can do for Richmond."