Morro Bay will elect a Mayor and two Council members on Tuesday, Nov. 8, in the first election held after voters did away with the local Primary Election process.
And while originally there were four candidates vying for the council seats, one hopeful has withdrawn from the race. Three are vying for the Mayor’s job — 2-time incumbent Jamie Irons, former 2-term Councilwoman Betty Winholtz, and private practice land use planner and businesswoman Tina Metzger.
With the two council incumbents — Noah Smukler and Christine Johnson — deciding not to run, the council will see at least two new faces when they are sworn in, in early December. Vying for the seats are retired Caltrans engineer and cycling advocate, Robert Davis, semi-retired mechanical engineer and current Planning Commissioner Richard Sadowski, and retired public servant and Public Works Advisory Board Chairwoman, Marlys McPherson.
Laura Cogan had qualified for the ballot but has decided to withdraw from the race for council due the recent death of her sister, however, her name will still appear on the ballot.
Should someone wish to enter the race as a write-in candidate, you have until Tuesday, Oct. 25 to apply and be officially eligible for election. See the City Clerk at City Hall if anyone wants to pursue this course.
Also, the deadline to register to vote is Friday, Oct. 24. If you register after Oct. 11, you will be eligible to vote but will not receive a Sample Ballot in the mail from the County Clerk-Recorder’s Office. Instead you’ll just get a postcard with the time, date and location of your assigned polling place. The Bay News asked four questions of the candidates:
Question-1) The City is entertaining a proposal for a large hotel/retail development at the Off the Hook/Libertine lease site on the Embarcadero that includes several “sea cottages” (floating platforms that are NOT actual boats). Why do you support or oppose this redevelopment project?
Jamie Irons: Recently, after great dialogue with my colleagues on Council regarding this project we agreed to extend the review process so all three respondents to the lease can refine their proposals with the following items in mind: conformance with Waterfront Master Plan, financial commitment to Centennial Parkway concept, parking, public benefit and access, environmental stewardship and economic viability. I voted to reject the sea cottage concept because my preference is to ensure public benefit and access. I encourage the public to make further comments on this project next time it comes before the Council and community for discussion.
Betty Winholtz: This is a creative project that does not fit the scale of Morro Bay, unless we are transforming the Embarcadero into an exclusive, Southern CA metropolitan beach city. It’s out of scale with all but one other project on the Embarcadero. It creates a new category within our current definition of live-a boards, temporary live-a boards(?),without demonstrating how dumping waste/polluting the Bay will be avoided, not just mitigated. It violates a number of building codes — height, setbacks — that other businesses were made to follow. It hasn’t been before the planning commission for public vetting. As proposed, I do not support it.
Tina Metzger: I oppose this redevelopment project as presented to the Council on Sept. 13, because of the following: the large scale of the project is not compatible with the surrounding development; it will block viewsheds to the bay and Sandspit; public access to, over and on the water is problematic; parking capacity issues; and public benefit and environmental stewardship issues.
Richard Sadowski: I believe that at this time the city needs to focus on taking care of basic essential needs: water supply, wastewater collections, treatment and reclamation, street improvements to name a few. This project is on Tidelands Grant Lands, so plans must be thoroughly vetted with the California State Lands Commission. I feel that this is not a valid priority for the city at this time and should be addressed after the GP/LCP update is completed for this area.
Marlys McPherson: I am not opposed to combining two lease sites, but I would not recommend approval of the proposed project. In particular, placing “sea cottages” on floating platforms is a concept that is neither practical nor acceptable in Morro Bay; it is inconsistent with current use of the estuary and Bay. I doubt the Coastal Commission would approve the project. I believe the City Council made the right decision in directing City staff to extend the review period and ask all proposers to address key issues that would ensure compliance with City plans and projects (e.g., integration and financial support for the Centennial Parkway project).
Robert Davis: I will need to see the next round of RFPs before I can form an opinion. The Council did the right thing to extend the review period and require additional information. It is important that the project not block the boating channel, conform to the Waterfront Master Plan, fit the Centennial Parkway concept, provide a parking plan, public benefit and access, environmental stewardship and economic benefit.
Q-2) Please place the following issues in your order of importance and explain why you placed what you did as your No. 4 priority:
Improving street maintenance
Keeping independent police and fire departments
Increasing tourism/promotions spending
Providing affordable/workforce housing
Irons: 1-Improving street maintenance; 2-Providing affordable/workforce housing; 3-Increasing tourism/promotions spending; 4- Keeping independent police and fire departments.
On August 13, Council voted unanimously NOT to consider a cost comparison of our Police to potential outsourcing of police services and also did not support future outsourcing of Fire or Harbor services. The item came about as follow up to a 2015 potential cost savings recommendation. The question posed to the City Council and the community in August was: “Does the City want to consider a cost comparison for law enforcement services from the Sheriff’s Department”? The answer from our community, the Council and me was a resounding “NO.”
Winholtz: 1-Improving street maintenance; 2-Providing affordable/workforce housing; 3-Increasing tourism/promotions spending; 4-Keeping independent police and fire departments.
With the outpouring of public comment, 2,300 petition signers, against outsourcing the police department now and the fire department next year, a clear message was sent to City Hall: keep them local. This is the second time the public has rejected outsourcing of these two departments in eight years. Elected officials will avoid this idea if they want to keep their jobs. Keeping independent police and fire is a mandate of the people. It is now a non-issue, that’s why it is fourth on my list.
Metzger: 1-Keeping independent police and fire departments; 2-Improving street maintenance; 3-Increasing tourism/promotions spending; 4-Providing affordable/workforce housing.
Affordable/workforce housing may be promoted, encouraged, and supported by a city jurisdiction in various ways, such as CDBG grants, and policies in the General Plan Housing Element, Zoning and Municipal Code. Providing affordable/workforce housing, such as the building, operating, and maintaining of affordable housing, is most efficiently and successfully accomplished by private, non-profit housing developers, such as Peoples’ Self-Help Housing Corp.
Sadowski: 1-Independent fire and police departments; 2-Improving street maintenance; 3-Providing affordable/workforce housing; 4-Increasing tourism/promotions spending.
I believe that with the establishment of a Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, tourism will increase significantly. The CHNMS will help fill the revenue vacuum that is created by the closure of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant.
McPherson: 1-Improving street maintenance; 2-Keeping independent police and fire departments; 3-Providing affordable/workforce housing; 4-Increasing tourism/promotions spending.
Of the issues listed, I placed increasing tourism/promotions spending in fourth place because I believe that we are already spending enough money on bringing more tourists to our City. As a result of the monies spent, tourism has increased significantly over the last several years, with transient occupancy taxes now accounting for 26% of City revenues. I believe we need to carefully balance the desire for increased tourism with the needs and concerns of our residents. There are more pressing needs to be addressed with City resources, such as repairing our streets and maintaining our infrastructure.
Davis: 1-Improving street maintenance; 2-Increasing tourism/promotions spending; 3-Providing affordable/workforce housing, 4-Keeping independent police and fire departments.
Street repair is the top priority of the residents of Morro Bay. Supporting a county-wide self-help sales tax, Measure J, to pay for repairs is the quickest and surest way to make those repairs. The City gets 15% of its revenue from sales taxes. We need to promote businesses and projects, including those that support our fishing industry that increase revenue. We must improve the relationship between City government and the business community. We cannot use tourism as our main revenue source; we must diversify. I want staff and Council to actively look for innovative and creative ways that other cities are pursuing to make housing as affordable as we can do it. The Police Department, the Fire Department, the Harbor Department are all part of our core identity as an incorporated city. I rated police, fire and harbor last because that ship has sailed. The Community and Council have agreed to take outsourcing those services off the table. Let’s move forward.
Q-3) The City has spent more than $1.7 million on a new sewer/reclamation plant project. Why are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the progress that’s been made to this point?
Irons: I am very satisfied with progress to relocate our WRF to the South Bay Boulevard site with support from the community. We are on track to meet our 5-year timeline to complete the Phase One wastewater treatment and are working concurrently on the Phase Two water reclamation function. The funds spent are necessary planning expenses that any new project would incur for environmental, archeological and engineering studies. The time/money spent on site selection was resources well-spent to avoid litigation that creates a downward spiral of excessive costs, community fracturing and loss of local control as we observed in Los Osos.
Winholtz: The lack of progress after spending $1.7 million is my dissatisfaction. The fact that after 3.5 years, there is no project description, no chosen technology, and no purchased land is dumbfounding.
The two top goals of the residents has consistently been least expensive and reclamation ready beginning day one. That is, the plant should produce reusable, clean water when the plant opens. However, reclamation is not part of the project for 5-10 years after the plant is built. In addition, the estimated price has risen from approximately $35 million in 2010 to an estimated $100 million in 2016.
Metzger: I am extremely dissatisfied with the progress that has been made to date on the new sewage treatment plant. The City has spent close to $2 million, with very little to show for it. The City and project consultants have hopscotched from site, to site, to site, during Mayor Irons’ two terms, with bad decision after bad decision, too many to list here. The Mayor alienated our neighboring community of Cayucos, resulting in a 60-year partnership being blown up, forcing away as much as a $30 million Cayucos contribution to the project over time, adding that financial burden to Morro Bay rate payers. It is financial insanity to have the two small towns of Morro Bay and Cayucos building their own separate sewage treatment plants just a few miles apart. Morro Bay still does not have a secured site (with a memorandum of understanding between the property owner and the City). Morro Bay still does not have a Project description of the Project.
Cayucos Sanitary District is way ahead of Morro Bay in building their sewage treatment plant on Toro Creek Road, between Cayucos and Morro Bay. I have been in communication with Cayucos Sanitation District; it has been very positive. I asked them if Morro Bay could join them, if there is the possibility of piping our sewage to their plant. They told me it is “possible.” I am very confident I can work with Cayucos. Morro Bay would have to create a separate entity, a Sanitation District so that Morro Bay politics cannot mess with the bonding agreement. The Coastal Commission, and the Regional Water Board would support one plant for both communities. I am very hopeful and confident that once I am elected Mayor, we can work together again with Cayucos to create a mutually beneficial arrangement for both of our communities, and save millions of dollars for our ratepayers.
Sadowski: I am dissatisfied with the City’s progress. The City has failed to look at the project holistically. The Water Reclamation Project (WRF) should be looked at as a system — collections, conveyance, treatment and reclamation. Currently, the City’s myopic vision regarding this project is focusing only at the treatment aspect of the system, budgeted at $100 million, without the reclamation component. The idea of moving the current plant away from the ocean to make it safer from natural hazards, but then putting a massive sewer lift station in its place, seems to me to be a waste of money. In terms of risk, it’s pretty much equivalent to leaving the plant where it is. A true WRF with a small footprint at the City-owned Hanson’s (concrete plant) site would cost far less and make much more sense.
McPherson: Building a new sewer/reclamation facility is one of the most contentious decisions any city undertakes. It is unfortunate that it has taken as long as it has to site the new plant. However, after considerable analysis of alternatives and much public debate, the City Council has decided on a preferred site (off South Bay Boulevard). At this point, we cannot afford to go backward, which would cost more money in the long run. I will work to execute the current Council’s decision, and it is prudent to include other top-rated sites in the process until the Environmental Impact Review is completed.
Davis: I’m satisfied with the progress on the new water reclamation plant to this point because, ultimately, our residents will get the best project for the money. As I discovered with the library remodel, money spent upfront avoids more money spent during construction to fix problems that could have been anticipated.
Q-4) Why do you support or oppose building a roundabout at Hwy 41 and Main Street?
Irons: On Aug. 23, following the recommendation of the Public Works Advisory Board, I voted to move forward with preliminary engineering studies at Highway 41 and Main Street with the understanding that Caltrans, as the Lead Agency in charge of the project, strongly prefers the roundabout option as does the staff at the school district/Morro Bay High School. As the project moves ahead under Caltrans’ lead, there will be robust public outreach and I urge citizens to participate and speak out about this project.
Winholtz: This is another previously-defeated project being revisited by Council. I oppose this project primarily for safety. Roundabouts were not intended for pedestrian-high-use intersections. I support not putting our high school students and other pedestrians at risk of being hit in a non-regulated intersection. By non-regulated I mean an intersection where vehicles are not required to stop. Secondarily, the City is moving forward without public input. This is a major public works project, estimated at $5 million. It has not been demonstrated there is a need for it now, nor that this is the most worthy intersection of our tax dollars.
Metzger: I have serious safety concerns about the variety of semi trucks, out-of-towners, and locals rumbling through that already dicey intersection in their vehicles at the same time as the many high school students, other pedestrians and bicyclists try to negotiate their way around a Roundabout. Pedestrians need the safety confidence of stopped traffic to cross streets/intersections, not play “dodge ball” with moving cars coming at them.
Sadowski: This intersection has several issues and challenges, including traffic congestion and circulation, pedestrian and bike safety, and Hwy 1 on ramps and off ramps. The roundabout project should be vetted through during the review process of the City’s Circulation Element in the new General Plan/Local Coastal Program update
McPherson: As Chair of the Public Works Advisory Board, I’ve heard two presentations of this proposed project. The evidence shows that a roundabout is the safest alternative; pedestrian crossing does not occur in the middle of the roundabout. City staff reported that meetings with Morro Bay High School and school district officials indicated strong support for the roundabout alternative. Caltrans is the lead agency on this project and also prefers a roundabout. PWAB unanimously recommended that the preliminary engineering (P.E.) phase include both the roundabout and signalization alternatives and that significant public outreach should occur early in the P.E. process to gauge public support.
Davis: Caltrans has performed a thorough “Intersection Control Evaluation” that ranks a roundabout option superior to light signalization. Civil engineers are no-nonsense people who look at the numbers. Their only concern is moving cars safely and efficiently. I trust their conclusion. My concern is to safely move pedestrians through the roundabout. I need to see a design that will protect pedestrians without making the traffic situation worse. I look forward to thorough public input on this project before we proceed.