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As election nears, Morro Bay candidates will battle over sewer project

Fly over Morro Bay’s wastewater treatment plant — and get a look at its possible future

Morro Bay, California, needs to replace its aging wastewater treatment plant, which was built in 1953. The California Coastal Commission has denied a permit to build a new plant near the Pacific Ocean.
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Morro Bay, California, needs to replace its aging wastewater treatment plant, which was built in 1953. The California Coastal Commission has denied a permit to build a new plant near the Pacific Ocean.

Morro Bay’s proposed Water Reclamation Facility, a $128.5 million project to replace the city’s aging sewer plant, has left the coastal community divided — and that divide extends to the slate of candidates running for city office in November.

On Nov. 6, Morro Bay voters will select candidates to fill one two-year mayoral term and two four-year city council terms. There are seven candidates for mayor and council.

Four favor the WRF: Mayoral candidate and incumbent city council member John Headding, and council candidates Dawn Addis, Jesse Barron and Jan Goldman.

Three oppose the WRF: John Weiss, who is running for mayor, and Jeff Heller and Betty Winholtz, who are running for city council.

John Headding, candidate for mayor

Headding, a pharmacist and CEO of Morro Bay Drug and Gift, said his experience on the council and ability to operate “from a standpoint of the 20,000-foot level” make him well-suited for the role of mayor.

He has championed the WRF project, calling it one of the city’s most important priorities.

Headding said he also wants to see the city diversify its economic portfolio and become more than “a single-economy city” based on tourism. That includes developing what Headding described as “catalyst sites” that he argued would stimulate economic growth for the city.

He said other priorities include pursuing support for offshore wind energy and federal funding to clean up the Morro Bay Power Plant site.

John Weiss, candidate for mayor

Weiss, owner of Morro Bay-based Coast Electronics, served as the board president of the Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce and governor for Rotary District 5240, which includes Kern, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

Weiss is critical of the city’s spending on the WRF project, and said he opposes the current proposed rate increase.

He said residents of Cayucos, which broke away from Morro Bay to build its own wastewater plant, will end up paying less than half of what Morro Bay residents will be expected to pay.

If elected, Weiss said he also would work to promote civility at city council meetings and to address what he described as “appalling” turnover in the Morro Bay city government.

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Morro Bay's proposed Wastewater Reclamation Facility would replace this wastewater treatment plant. The Tribune

Dawn Addis, candidate for city council

Addis, who works as a teacher for the San Luis Coastal Unified School District, is well-known in San Luis Obispo County for her role in co-founding the group Women’s March San Luis Obispo, which has organized rallies for a variety of progressive causes since January 2017.

“I’m pretty comfortable talking about difficult issues,” she said.

While Addis initially declined to weigh in on the WRF debate, she said Wednesday that she supports the project doing research and hearing from “all sides of the community.”

“I will not be protesting. I am committed to water reclamation and sustainable clean water for all generations,” she said.

Addis said she is sensitive to the concerns of Morro Bay’s “economically fragile residents” but said that continued protests would only make the necessary replacement of the existing plant more expensive.

“By allowing the project to pass, we leave the door open to continue to bring the cost down (with federal and state funds),” she said.

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Jesse Barron, candidate for city council

Barron works as a plans examiner for San Luis Obispo County and also sits on the Morro Bay Planning Commission.

A 20-year veteran of government service, Barron said he believes he can bring a perspective to the council that none of the other candidates offer.

Barron said he believes the city council is there to manage, not to push agendas.

“As a professional employee, we should be looking more toward professional management than partisan politics,” he said. “Politicians should know their place.”

Barron offered his qualified support for the WRF project, and said he wouldn’t be signing a protest ballot. He said the WRF is not the best solution but it is the solution the city has settled on.

Barron said other priorities include addressing the city’s housing crisis, amending the city ordinance on vacation rentals to include a mandatory 200-foot buffer between them and meeting the community’s demand for access to cannabis.

“I would like to see a cannabis dispensary within city limits, medical or recreational,” he said.

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Morro Bay plans to replace its aging wastewater treatment plant, which was built in 1953. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Jan Goldman, candidate for city council

Though she is part of a crop of first-time candidates for Morro Bay city office, Goldman is well known in the community for her volunteer service, which earned her the Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce’s Citizen of the Year distinction for 2017.

Goldman said she decided to run for office after being urged by several friends.

Goldman supports the city’s WRF project.

“I would like it to be moved (to the proposed location). I would like it to be built. I would like to just get on with it because we’ve been talking about it for 10 years,” she said.

Like many other candidates, Goldman said she supports pursuing economic growth for Morro Bay.

“I think there are some things coming along that would be a good shot in the arm for Morro Bay,” she said.

That includes the proposed new aquarium on the Embarcadero.

“I want Morro Bay to remain a small town. ... I want to protect the natural environment and the wildlife,” Goldman said. “But I think that we can improve the city by just encouraging other businesses to come here and fill in some of the empty spots.”

Jeff Heller, candidate for city council

Heller did not respond to a Tribune request for comment by 4 p.m. Friday.

However, Heller has been active in the movement to oppose the WRF project

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In 2013, the state Coastal Commission denied a permit for a new wastewater treatment plant at the current oceanside location in Morro Bay. That property is again back on the table due to rising costs. Jayson Mellom The Tribune

Betty Winholtz, candidate for city council

Like Headding, Winholtz has previous experience in elected office, serving on the council from 2002 to 2010. She also unsuccessfully ran for Morro Bay mayor in 2016.

Winholtz said she decided to run in the November election when she saw the current selection of candidates would not lead the city in “(a) direction that the majority of the town wants us to go.”

She has been an outspoken critic of the city’s WRF project. Winholtz said the city shouldn’t be building a new wastewater plant until it had an accurate assessment of total flow into the plant.

“For me, I don’t believe we have a handle on what our flow is. And if you don’t know what the flow is, you don’t know how big a plant to build,” she said.

Winholtz said she’d rather see the city fix and improve the existing infrastructure.

She would also like to see the city tackle an amendment of its vacation rental ordinance. Winholtz said entire neighborhoods are given over to vacation rentals where nobody lives full-time on site.

“It’s really creepy for some neighborhoods where they don’t even know who’s in and out of their street every day,” she said.

Winholtz said city spending is another priority. She said the current council has been wastefully spending.

“It’s become just, ‘Grab the money,’ ” she said. “I think we need to look at restricting our spending.”

Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7934, @andrewsheeler

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