EL CERRITO -- The City Council heard presentations from an innovative school writing program and a Marin County green energy nonprofit Tuesday evening and honored an El Cerrito native who has become a "NewsPoet" on National Public Radio.

Robert Menzimer of the Writer/Coach Connection asked the council for $2,500 to help maintain his program at Portola Middle School at the same level as last year.

The mostly volunteer organization receives funding from school districts and from grants and private contributions but has never received money from a city.

Writer/Coach Connection places volunteer writing coaches in the schools to work one-on-one with students and supplement the instruction they receive in their English classes.

Volunteers at Portola have raised about $2,000 this year, and the West Contra Costa school district is providing $10,000, leaving the program about $2,500 short of what it received in the 2011-12 school year.

"We're working to help students write effectively and think critically," Menzimer told the council. "We'll all pay the price for the degradation of writing and critical thinking skills."

Menzimer was backed by six adult volunteers in the program, which is also offered in three other East Bay school districts, including Albany.

"From a homeowner perspective, $2,500 is a good investment for the money," said Lynda Frank, a volunteer at Portola and parent of a student at El Cerrito High.


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Councilwoman Rebecca Benassini said she backs Menzimer's effort, but she acknowledged that because of budget constraints, the city needs to be careful making piecemeal grants to any organization.

"This is a unique and critical time (for the city budget), where city employees have given up a lot (in concessions)," Benassini said. "There is a lack of a competitive grant program, but this may be a good time to make an exception."

Benassini and Menzimer both emphasized that even a small amount of city support could go a long way to leverage more grants from nonprofits.

The council agreed to consider the grant as an action item at a later meeting.

Later, Dawn Weisz of Marin Clean Energy, a joint powers authority in Marin County, described how it is offering energy customers the opportunity to buy electric power from 50 percent or 100 percent renewable sources, compared with about 20 percent from PG&E.

Marin Clean Energy buys power from wind, biomass, biofuel, hydro and solar energy producers, mostly in California, and resells it to its customers at rates that are competitive with PG&E, Weisz said.

The 10-year-old nonprofit has 95,000 customers in Marin and signed an agreement in June to sell power to customers in Richmond.

El Cerrito would also be a good place for MCA to expand its business because of its proximity to Marin and because of residents' overall interest in the environment, Weisz said.

The council also honored poet Tess Taylor, an El Cerrito native who teaches writing at UC Berkeley, with a city proclamation celebrating her contributions to the arts locally and nationally.

Taylor is best known to the public as the "NewsPoet" for National Public Radio. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the Boston Review and the Times Literary Supplement.

In other action, the council denied an appeal of the Planning Commission's approval of a use permit for a consignment auto sales and auto repair business at 11858 San Pablo Ave.

Steve Kahn, owner of Steve's Auto Care next door to the property, appealed the approval on the grounds that noise from service bays facing his property would disrupt his operations.

Kahn said he located his service bays at the back of his building to create a quieter, more attractive frontage on San Pablo.

Kahn was also concerned about pedestrians walking across his property if the vacant building were to be reopened without any changes to its design.

The council directed the city's Design Review Board to require a fence, trees or a combination of screening to block views of the service bays and limit access to a reopened facility from Kahn's property.