Morro Bay voters will have two clearly different choices on Nov. 2 when deciding who to vote for in the mayoral race. Candidates Bill Yates and Betty Winholtz find themselves at odds on most issues facing the city.
Now, a new issue has arisen that is dominating the debate — the $31 million upgrade of the wastewater treatment plant, the most expensive infrastructure project in the city’s history. City officials are trying to decide which of two design contractors to award the job to.
“It’s the issue,” Winholtz said. “It’s what everyone is talking about.”
Yates and Winholtz are trying to succeed Mayor Janice Peters, who is retiring. Winholtz has been on the City Council for the past eight years, and Yates is a former mayor.
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Meanwhile, four candidates are running for two seats on the City Council. The top two vote-getters in that race will be elected. Running for the seats are Planning Commissioner Nancy Johnson, retired National Guard Sgt. D’Onna Kennedy, restaurateur George Leage and businessman Jack Smith.
Winholtz and Yates are symbolic of divisions within the seaside, tourist-oriented community that the election has highlighted.
For example, Yates wants to see the outdated power plant in the city continue to operate to bring in revenue, while Winholtz has supported finding a new use for the property. Many in the community fear that the antiquated plant could wind up being abandoned.
The future of the plant was suddenly thrown in the air in August when owner Dynegy announced it was selling the plant to another energy company.
“The plant is there; it exists,” Yates said. “It’s better to have it operate than not operate.”
In other issues, Winholtz supports allowing medical marijuana dispensaries to set up shop in the city. Yates says he is indifferent on the issue and plans to take no position on it. Morro Bay voters will vote in November on a ballot initiative that seeks to ban the dispensaries.
Most contentiously, Yates accuses Winholtz of being unfriendly to business, a charge she denies. For example, Winholtz rarely attends chamber of commerce mixers, Yates said.
The issue is contentious because tourism accounts for about half of the city’s revenue. Yates has vowed to make Morro Bay a friendlier place to do business.
“It’s the only avenue for revenue generation,” he said. “Betty seems indifferent to business.”
Winholtz counters that she has cast many votes to protect business while on the council. For example, she has voted to uphold business zoning that prevents commercial areas from being converted to residential uses.
“I’ve been continuously self-employed for 18 years,” she said, referring to her tutoring business. “I have been a business person and continue to be one.”
Yates and Winholtz now find themselves on opposite sides of the issue of the sewer plant upgrade, the city’s newest controversy.
In February, the engineering firm Montgomery Watson Harza was selected to design the new plant that serves Morro Bay and Cayucos under a joint powers agreement. However, yielding to pressure from the community, it was decided to allow PERC Water of Costa Mesa to submit a competing proposal in hopes that it would lower the cost.
Winholtz supports the idea of a counterproposal, because PERC promises to stick to its upfront offer and absorb any cost overruns, which are common in such projects.
“While a course change might be a nuisance for staff, if it will save us, the ratepayers, millions of dollars, we should pursue it,” she said.
Yates, on the other hand, has been disturbed by PERC’s failure to provide specifics about cost, even though the deadline for the counterproposal was Sept. 23.
“I’m beginning to have a problem with what I’ve seen and how PERC operates,” he said.
The recent recession has hit Morro Bay harder than most communities. The town has seen reductions in revenue from commercial fishing, tourism and franchise fees from the nearly dormant power plant.
This has resulted in cutbacks in many of the city’s services, including Call-A-Ride.