Morro Bay candidates debate priorities for city's future

Contenders lay out their views on government transparency and how to boost the city's economy

nwilson@thetribunenews.comApril 17, 2014 

Morro Bay's candidates for mayor and two City Council seats outline their views. The election is June 3.

NICK WILSON — nwilson@thetribunenews.com

In a comprehensive debate Thursday, candidates for Morro Bay’s mayor and two City Council seats laid out priorities that focused on city finances, building a new sewage treatment plant, fixing potholes and uniting the town.

While the candidates disagreed on the issues, the discussion never veered into the heated tones that have characterized the politically polarized city at times in recent years.

The event coordinated by the Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce and moderated by the League of Women Voters of San Luis Obispo County, featured the two candidates for mayor, Jamie Irons and Carla Wixom, as well as the three candidates vying for the council: John Headding, Nancy Johnson and Matt Makowetski. They will face off in the June 3 primary election.

The League of Women Voters took questions in writing from audience members. The mayoral and council candidates responded to the same questions.

Despite general harmony in the nature of the discussion, sharp differences in viewpoint emerged between Irons and Wixom.

Irons, the incumbent, trumpeted the need for a General Plan update and a review of the city’s policies to best shape Morro Bay’s future while also pushing forward on speeding up construction of a new sewage-treatment plant.

“Policies shape lives, provide safe routes, and they are the promises we create and must keep,” Irons said. “It takes leadership to uphold those promises and best serve the community.”

Wixom, a former council member, focused on the need to manage the city’s budget tightly, spur business growth, keep sewer costs down and work to unite the community.

“I’ll work to balance the budget, keep sewer costs from increasing and grow our reserves,” Wixom said. “… I want to bring Morro Bay together.”

In response to questions about transparency, mayoral candidates had different takes on how open the council has been in recent years. Both mayoral candidates are running on a platform of transparency.

Irons cited his support, during his term, to open to public comment discussion on the  leases the city issued for property along the Embarcadero.

Wixom countered that documents on those leases have been public for years.

Detailed negotiations on the leases remain closed-session items.

Headding, a former hospital CEO who moved from Cambria four years ago, targeted the city’s finances, saying Morro Bay is facing “dire consequences” if it doesn’t change how it’s doing business.

Headding cited a 2008 study by consulting group Management Partners that concluded the city needs a widespread vision of financial change; it recommended revenue-generating planning and reductions in spending.

The council commissioned the study, which resulted in about 40 recommendations on ways the city could reorganize, save money and increase its revenue stream.

“I like to read, and I’ve poured through that 112-page report,” Headding said. “I want to help get us back financially.”

Johnson, a former school teacher and council incumbent, also emphasized fiscal responsibility while ensuring funding for police and fire services.

Johnson  said Morro Bay’s fishing industry is among the county’s largest economic agricultural drivers and the city needs to continue to support it. She said key to that is upholding Measure D, which created a zone designated for commercial fishing uses at the north end of the Embarcadero.

“We need to spur investment in our community and jobs,” Johnson said. “And we need to protect private property rights. … The process of building needs to be clear and precise.”

Makowetski, a high school teacher and chairman of the city’s Public Works Advisory Board, said the council’s decision-making on infrastructure — such as street improvements and where to build the sewage plant — is vital to future generations.

Makowetski echoed Irons’ sentiments on a longstanding need to update the city’s 26-year-old General Plan. He also pressed for a city boatyard to serve as a kind of a fee-based marine parking lot.

“We have a dire responsibility to protect people now and into the future with the decisions we make,” Makowetski said. “We have to look 10, 20, 30 years ahead.”

Absent from the forum discussion were any questions related to the months-long saga last fall of the forced resignations of former city manager Andrea Lueker and city attorney Rob Schultz. The pair left the city under pressure from a council majority led by Irons.

Their departures underscored a change in the council majority after the 2012 election and led to an unsuccessful recall effort against Irons.

The City Council will choose the city’s new permanent general manager and city attorney in the coming months.

The candidates were in agreement on several problems facing the city.

Those included a community-wide challenge of helping the homeless population; the importance of a well thought-out sewer construction plan; and a demand for financial revenues to replace those lost when Dynegy shut down the Morro Bay Power Plant earlier this year.

Dynegy had been paying about $800,000 per year to the city.

Several candidates said the city prepared for the closure by using the funds in recent years only for discretionary or one-time expenses, rather than for basic services.

The candidates agreed that the waterfront site, which Dynegy owns, can be a valuable source of new industry and a welcome revenue generator.

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