In July the Arvin City Council voted to establish restrictions on new oil and gas operations within its borders.
On Nov. 6, whether they realize it or not, voters in the Kern County farm town will weigh in on that ordinance. Not directly, but by way of a side door: Three seats are up for grabs on the five-member city council, and the manner in which they're filled will likely determine the ordinance's future.
Other communities throughout the Central Valley will be watching, and so will the state's oil industry.
Of the eight candidates on the ballot, five have meager campaign treasuries if they have any at all. But three challengers are comfortably funded, thanks to an infusion of cash from the California Independent Petroleum Association and donations from prominent local politicians like Republican state senate candidate Shannon Grove, an Arvin native, and Bakersfield City Councilman Willie Rivera, a Democrat whose day job is CIPA spokesman.
The Kern County oil and gas industry is the state's largest by far and, even in its somewhat diminished capacity of late, it still produces more oil each year than the entire state of Oklahoma. Arvin's dissent represents the first municipal crack in its long-running economic dominance.
Enter CIPA, whose goals, according to its website, include “aggressively” promoting the industry and combatting legislation that hurts oil and gas production. To that end, they’ve dumped $20,000 into the race.
"The oil industry is coming after us," said Arvin Mayor Jose Gurrola, who is not on the ballot this year but might as well be, given his role in the development of the ordinance, which expands the required distance between homes and new oil and gas operations. The local regulation also calls for controls on noise, odor, lighting and other aspects of new oil production within the urban interface.
Jazmin Robles, who supported the ordinance, is up for reelection along with councilman Jess Ortiz, who was absent both times the council voted on the ordinance. Ordinance supporter Erika Madrigal, who holds the third seat, is not running.
Gurrola is not endorsing Ortiz, who “tends to not show up for votes that are controversial.
"It's not that he had other things to do" when the ordinance came up for votes, Gurrola said. "He didn't want to."
The others on the ballot include challengers Matt Look, a stay-at-home father of eight, Olivia Trujillo, an Arvin planning commissioner, and Juvenal Benitez, who lists himself as a businessman. Look said he would probably vote to repeal the ordinance, were it to come back before the council; Trujillo supported the ordinance at the planning commission level. Benitez could not be reached for comment.
The three well-funded challengers — baseball coach Daniel "Nano" Borreli, businessman Abdo Algabyali and systems support technician Mark Franetovich — are running as a slate. Their campaign committee, Citizens for Borreli, Algabyali & Franetovich Arvin City Council 2018, has been funded largely by CIPA, which gave that $20,000. As of Friday, their slate had collected $25,500 all together. Separately, Franetovich has $100 in donations from Arvin residents and at least $8,000 from Bakersfield residents and Republican organizations.
Financial disclosures on file with the city of Arvin show no contributions for any of the other candidates.
"It's a little upsetting, a little surprising, that they (oil and gas interests) would do that," said Robles, a 28-year-old Arvin High School history teacher and We the People coach who is seeking her second term on the council.
"What we've heard is that there's 90 percent support in the community for the ordinance," Robles said. "I don't think they (voters) are aware that this is going on now. Hundreds of people signed the petition in favor of the restrictions."
But Borreli rolls his eyes, figuratively anyway, at the suggestion that he is part of some pro-oil soft coup.
"I've been hearing all kinds of things and I just laugh it off," said Borreli, who called The Californian from the bleachers of his son's junior varsity football game Friday evening. "I've seen the comments about me on Facebook. Why would Mayor Gurrola say stuff like that about me if he doesn't really know about me?"
Borreli, 39, said he was drafted to run by some of the parents of his Little League and Arvin High School junior varsity baseball players. He acknowledged that he'll get some mileage from his sports connections.
"People hear 'Pass attempt by Ryan Borelli' (over the loudspeaker at Arvin JV football games) and look over and say, 'Hey, you're the one running for city council,'" said Borreli, whose son, he said, threw a touchdown pass and then made an interception just within the course of a 10-minute phone conversation.
But Borreli acknowledged that he does not regard the city's oil and gas ordinance as helpful.
"If we could go by the same rules that Kern County has," the situation would be better, Borreli said. "We should do the same. I think we went overboard with this ordinance. I didn't really study it closely, but just looking at it, it looks like we went overboard."
Kern County’s three-year-old oil and gas ordinance essentially provides the industry with a 20-year environmental impact report that rubber-stamps most new projects, exempting them from individual, case-by case review. Gurrola said the county’s blanket blessing is overly broad and unprecedented.
Franetovich begs to differ; the county ordinance, he said, simply streamlines the process. He acknowledged that his dissatisfaction with the Arvin ordinance was one of the reasons he is running.
"Arvin is in need of good jobs and the energy industry is a huge asset in Kern County," he wrote in an emailed response to provided questions. " ... We rely on energy industry tax revenues to help fund our schools, create great paying jobs and bring tax revenue into the city. We should be working to make Arvin a friendly place to do business and not regulate any good industries and their jobs out of Arvin."
Should the ordinance, he was asked, be repealed?
"Arvin should follow the very same well-designed ordinance developed by the County of Kern for oil and gas, not the new Arvin ordinance that is modeled after communities in Los Angeles County," he answered.
(Algabyali could not be reached for comment.)
And there the lines are drawn.
Gurrola and supporters of the ordinance say the people of Arvin "aren't going to appreciate" the industry's interference in their quest for health and safety.
"We disagree with the county's EIR policy," he said. "We could have followed along, but it was not a responsible policy."
Franetovich and anti-ordinance allies like Russell Johnson, a spokesman for the Association of Builders and Contractors, which also donated to the anti-ordinance slate, say Arvin's stance will hurt jobs and growth.
"Quite frankly there have been some policies coming out of Arvin lately that don't ... support jobs," Johnson said. "That's an example of an ordinance that hurts jobs."
What the oil industry may be most afraid of is that the Arvin measure, if allowed to grow roots, will set a dangerous precedent in the heart of California petroleum production. Rivera said as much in July, when the ordinance was approved: Arvin's actions could embolden environmental justice activists to push for similar restrictions on oil production elsewhere in Kern County, particularly the oil-rich cities of Shafter and Wasco.
"Every notch in (the activists') belt, I think, empowers them to keep biting off more, and that concerns me," Rivera said in an earlier interview.
Count on it, Gurrola said Friday.
Other leaders throughout the Central Valley — he would not name names — have been watching to see what is happening in Arvin. If they're encouraged by what transpires there, Gurrola said, they might take action themselves.
The Californian's Stacey Shepard and freelance journalist Emma Gallegos contributed to this column.