Morro Bay mayoral candidates differ on economy, infrastructure

From wastewater to tourism, mayor's race is about how the city will handle key challenges

nwilson@thetribunenews.comApril 26, 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

Jamie Irons is running to retain Morro Bay’s mayoral seat on a campaign motto of “Let’s Keep It Going.”

But challenger Carla Wixom sees a need for change in direction, and more town unity. Her campaign slogan is “Bringing Morro Bay Together.”

Both agree that the city faces major challenges critical to Morro Bay’s quality of life, infrastructure and economic sustainability.

Those include building a new multi-million-dollar sewage treatment plant, assisting potential new industry or uses for the shuttered waterfront power plant site, promoting a “shop local” campaign to encourage local spending, and balancing the budget.

But they are far apart on some of the ways to tackle these and other key challenges facing Morro Bay leading up to the June 3 primary.

Irons, 54, is focused on providing quality infrastructure while maintaining environmental consciousness and prioritizing comprehensive, long-term planning.

Wixom, 55, is running on a platform of “economic sustainability,” supporting business and tourism growth to help drive city revenues.

Here’s a closer look at both candidates:

Jamie Irons

One of Irons’ top concerns is updating the city’s General Plan from the 1980s to best provide a blueprint for development decisions.

Irons believes the 26-year-old plan leads to planning decisions based on “variances” — or exceptions to the norm — and “haphazard developments going in the wrong direction,” according to his website.

An example is the allowance for commercial and residential units on North Main Street that have created challenges with parking as well as commercial building owners wanting to change to residential and vice-versa, Irons said. As a result of the mixture, a lighting store surrounded by residential units ended up closing, he said.

Irons, a former Morro Bay Power Plant employee and manager of his own rental properties, also wants to diversify the city’s water sources to best prepare for drought conditions and ensure an adequate supply.

The city had been informed it would lose its state water for this year after August but later received word it would have state water through the rest of the year.

Still, if drought conditions continue, the city is faced with using its desalination plant, tapping into a limited well supply with high nitrate content, or draining water reserve resources. The desal plant isn’t operating as the city works to renew its expired permit with the California Coastal Commission.

“We take water for granted, but without it, we’re not going to have any economic development because we won’t be here,” Irons said. “It’s imperative we ensure safe, clean, reliable sources of water.”

Among his accomplishments, Irons points to his work to move the sewage treatment project away from the ocean. Irons opposed using the existing coastal site.

Shortly after taking office he joined with council members Noah Smukler and Christine Johnson to send a resolution to the state Coastal Commission, urging it to deny the city’s permit to rebuild the plant onsite. That move reversed the city’s direction and moved it toward choosing an inland construction site.

Irons also worked to obtain a $250,000 Ocean Protection Council grant to update the General Plan; opening the Embarcadero lease process and City Council discussion items to allow for increased public input.

Carla Wixom

Wixom served on the council from 2008 to 2012, when she was known as Carla Borchard before getting married.

She also ran for mayor in 2012, earning 21 percent of the vote while losing to Irons, who took nearly 53 percent.

She is a longtime owner of Carla’s Country Kitchen in Morro Bay and says she understands the ups and downs of small businesses and how to support them.

“What are we going to do to bring in businesses, and bring tourism, to put dollars in our coffers?” Wixom said. “What are we going to do to keep public safety employees in our area so they don’t keep leaving for other areas? Economic development, whether it’s tourism, fishing, light industry, is what is going to carry us forward.”

When the Morro Bay Power Plant shut down, the city lost more than $500,000 in annual revenues for daily city operations and $250,000 for Harbor Department expenses.

The city started planning for those losses by using the money for one-time discretionary expenditures in recent years instead of basic expenses, but financial constraints remain a hurdle for Morro Bay.

The fishing industry also has experienced a downturn over the past decade, though business has improved slightly in the past couple of years.

Other key issues for Wixom, who previously served as a volunteer firefighter, include ensuring adequate public safety staffing.

She has cited past work in helping to secure a school resource officer at Morro Bay High School. A school resource officer remains in place at the school.

Wixom also pointed to her support in creating an additional firefighter position, purchasing a rescue vehicle, and building a new fire station through funding from Measure Q, a half percent sales tax increase that voters approved in 2006.

“I understand the importance of our police, fire, and harbor (staff members) and the role they play in our community,” Wixom said on her website.

And Wixom hopes to keep sewer treatment plant costs down however possible. She has criticized the current council majority for hiring a consulting firm to explore options for the sewage treatment plant location that she said duplicated much of the work of a previously hired firm.

As for community division, Wixom cites the forced resignations of former city manager Andrea Lueker and city attorney Rob Schultz as the biggest error of the current council majority over the past year, saying it cost the city institutional knowledge, energy and money.

The push to remove Lueker and Schultz, led by Irons and supported by Smukler and Johnson, was a key component to a recall effort against Irons that failed when it couldn’t garner enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot.

Irons has repeatedly said he didn’t act alone in the process to separate with Lueker and Schultz and proceeded in the best interest of the city.

In coming months, the council will determine its permanent city manager and city attorney positions.

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