RICHMOND -- Before arriving at an estimate of costs associated with the fire at Chevron's Richmond refinery last summer, the city wants to first consult with a lawyer.
The City Council on Tuesday rejected Mayor Gayle McLaughlin's push to hire an outside expert to quantify the total costs of the Aug. 6 fire, which sent more than 15,000 people to area hospitals and helped trigger a property value plunge. Instead, the council passed a substitute motion to confer with attorneys before seeking any estimate.
"My concern is that if the estimate comes back and it's not helpful to us, Chevron could throw that back in our face," said Councilman Jim Rogers. "Losing potentially a very significant amount of leverage is not a risk I am interested in taking."
City Manager Bill Lindsay released a document in May announcing the city's intent to hire San Francisco-based law firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, which represented victims of the 2010 San Bruno blast caused by a Pacific Gas & Electric gas line rupture. The city is still in negotiations with both Chevron and the law firm, but most on the council expect that the city will be unable to come to settlement terms with Chevron and instead proceed with litigation.
McLaughlin led the failed charge to commission new cost estimates. She said a wide range of impacts should all be factored into the costs borne by the city resulting from Chevron's fire, which state and federal agencies blamed on negligence, including poor maintenance.
McLaughlin said costs should include emergency response, disruptions to city services, staff time for meetings and events, property values, property taxes and "businesses discouraged from locating in Richmond" because of the fire.
"It is essential that the total costs of the fire be gathered and submitted to public scrutiny," McLaughlin said.
But Rogers' concerns quickly swayed the rest of the council against the resolution. Rogers' substitute motion, which halted momentum for hiring an economist to come up with an estimate before consulting with the law firm, passed with no dissenters. Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles and Councilman Nat Bates abstained.
"Mayor, you're barking up the wrong tree," said Councilman Corky Boozé. "Our attorney is the best in the business, and we are getting an extremely good deal from him. We don't want to micromanage."
How much the city may seek through mediation or in court is unknown. The Richmond Progressive Alliance, a powerful local political organization that backs McLaughlin, estimated in its e-newsletter last week that the fire may have cost the city between $240 million and $918 million.