May 27 2015

Heated Council Debate Over Divestment of Fossil Fuel Investments

May 18th City Council Meeting Report by High School Student Sophia Lautt-

The City Council Meeting of May 18, 2015 started out slowly, like the light rain that often precedes a thunderstorm. After chanting the Pledge of Allegiance, the Council spent about fifteen minutes discussing the wording of a resolution to be presented to volunteers at the annual Volunteer Reception. The only small dispute arose when one council member thought the word “intelligent” should be removed since the volunteers ought to already know they are intelligent, and one council member disagreed. Meanwhile the audience, a group of Piedmont residents mostly appearing to be in their 30’s and 40’s, shifted in their seats.

The Public Forum followed the calendar discussions, during which a pair of Piedmont High School students spoke up about grievances concerning stop signs and streetlights. The Council, which is not allowed to respond to non-agenda items during the meeting, humored the students, knowing they were only there for a class assignment.

It was after the Public Forum, when the council began its regular agenda items, that the meeting entered into a new realm of passion and debate. The first item discussed was a request for the Council to support CALPers divestment from fossil fuel related stocks, the reason most of the audience members were there that night. The proposal would have meant that the Council would write a letter encouraging CALPers to divest its stocks in companies that promote the use of fossil fuels.

Five residents in total stood up, one at a time, to speak at the podium, where the large white camera in the corner of the room was now training all its attention. They spoke of how concerned they were that the environment would be destroyed during the lives of their children and grandchildren and how important it was that Piedmont take a stand to protect it. The proposal itself would not directly affect the use of fossil fuels in the near future, but as one woman put it, it would be a moral stand that would help stigmatize the fossil fuel companies.

Then the council began its discussion, and it was clear that they had come with their opinions already firm on the subject. Vice Mayor Jeffrey Wieler already knew he would not be voting for the proposal, though that did not stop him from responding to some of the things the residents said.

“I don’t like being told what my morals are,” Wieler said. He distrusted the source for some data the residents had used, saying it was too liberal to be taken seriously. He refused to believe Councilmember Teddy King, who said she had spoken with many Piedmont residents in favor of the proposal.  She mentioned her 10 years of community service. Wieler argued that since he had been involved in the community for twenty years, and she had only been active in the community for ten, he also knew what many Piedmonters wanted, which did not include divestment.

Councilmember Robert McBain was also against the proposal. He argued that Piedmont had never taken a stand on issues outside Piedmont’s control before, and it would set a problematic precedent.

“After this, who’s to say we won’t hear proposals about foreign policy and abortion?” McBain said. Such issues, he maintained, are divisive and will have neighbors fighting with neighbors.

Councilmembers Tim Rood and Teddy King were in favor of divestment. Rood came prepared with a printed presentation with data showing the detrimental effects of fossil fuels. King was of a similar mind, saying she wholeheartedly agreed with the residents’ idea that it be a moral stand against the fossil fuel companies. “I don’t have a problem making a statement, even if the action may not be directly effective,” she said.

In the end, Mayor Margaret Fujioka made the final decision, saying that tonight she would vote against the request. She said she would like to see it come up again so they may be able to have more discussion about it before it was either passed or rejected.

The rest of the meeting went by rather like the first half hour had gone. The Councilmembers voted in favor of an agreement to work with a carpenter for renovation of the City Hall entry hallway, while the rest of the audience slowly trickled out of the room. Reports from Councilmembers followed, though it was clear that everyone was ready to wrap the meeting up. Finally, at 9:10 p.m., the meeting adjourned.

Editors’ Note:  Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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