With the Morro Bay City Council recently approving layoffs and other staff reductions, it’s small wonder that budget concerns top the list of issues for eight candidates running for council and mayor.
The city is facing what has been called a perfect storm of falling or stagnant revenues and increasing costs. Luring more tourists to the picturesque port town is a common goal, but opinions vary about the best way to do that.
Medical marijuana dispensaries, bed taxes, the future of the city’s aged power plant and how to help struggling fishermen are also topics of discussion.
One thing is for sure: There will be some new faces on the council. Mayor Janice Peters is retiring, and two sitting members of the council are in the race to replace her.
Council members Rick Grantham and Betty Winholtz, whose terms are expiring, are running for mayor. Three-term former mayor Bill Yates and journalist Neil Farrell are also running.
The race to fill the two seats on the council has plenty of political newcomers. Restaurant owner George Leage, who narrowly lost to Peters in the last mayor race, is campaigning, as are retired Army sergeant and educator D’Onna Kennedy, Planning Commissioner Nancy Johnson and businessman and coach Jack Smith.
The June 8 primary may do little to clarify the future of the council, however.
According to the city’s rather complicated election rules, any candidate who receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary is elected. This means the mayor’s race could be decided June 8. However, if no one gets more than 50 percent, the top two finishers will face each other in November’s general election.
In the council race, if no one gets more than 50 percent, all four candidates will go on to the general election. If one candidate gets more than 50 percent, the top two remaining vote-getters will be on the November ballot for the other seat, city attorney Rob Schultz said.
The candidates, all veteran public servants, have opinions that vary widely on the issues.
One area they all agree on is the idea that the city needs to adopt a two-tier system for public pensions as a means of cutting costs. That is, the city should contribute less to the pensions of new hires than its does for veteran employees.
Farrell, 49, has worked as a newspaperman in the community for the past 18 years, previously for The Tribune and now for The Bay News, and describes himself as an expeditor.
“I’m the guy who rolls up his sleeves and gets the job done,” he said.
Farrell advocates having the city take over Morro Bay State Park from the state. He said the city could do a better job of managing the park’s three lucrative businesses — the restaurant, golf course and campground.
Farrell said he wants the city to be more of an activist on behalf of fishermen and fight proposals that hurt them, such as permanent and seasonal closures and allotting catches for individual fishermen. He would also develop a precise plan for the future of the power plant site.
A proud Vietnam War medic and retired nurse, Grantham, 59, is finishing his first term on the council. He stresses his strong work ethic and experience on numerous countywide governmental panels as his strengths.
He supports shifting 1 percentage point of the 13 percent transient occupancy tax away from the business improvement district to the city general fund, rather than letting that portion expire. He wants to negotiate a three-year lease extension on the power plant in order to keep it running past 2015, when it could shut down.
He opposes allowing a medical marijuana dispensary in town at least until a statewide ballot initiative in November provides more clarity on the issue. But he does support the city developing a policy.
Winholtz, 58, has been on the council for nearly eight years. Creation of a dog park and funding and expanding the library have been her special projects.
She agrees with Grantham about shifting a percentage of the bed tax to city coffers. However, she disagrees with him on the future of the power plant; she wants it shut down.
Winholtz said she would cut costs by consolidating departments and not replacing employees who leave.
“Attrition is a good way to go,” she said.
She is a supporter of medical marijuana dispensaries, saying they are a valuable public service. She agrees with others that the issue needs to be decided by a vote of the people.
As a former Morro Bay mayor, Yates, 62, is openly critical of how the city has been run in recent years.
“Morro Bay is an unfriendly city right now to businesses, tourists and its citizens; I’m determined to get that changed,” he said.
He vows to cut expenses and boost tourism. With hotel occupancy rates about 50 percent, he does not support shifting a portion of the transient occupancy tax away from promotions to the city.
Like many of the candidates, Yates is frustrated that there is little Morro Bay can do to directly help the town’s struggling fishing industry. He would put the medical marijuana dispensary issue to a vote and would work to keep the power plant operating.
City Council race
All four candidates agree on many issues. For example, they all want to keep the city’s transient occupancy tax allocations the same, let voters decide the medical marijuana issue and boost tourism.
A retired operator of a child-care center, Johnson, 69, is chairwoman of the city’s Planning Commission and has served on the Public Works Advisory Board.
She would like to see the power plant replaced by a user-friendly, green business park. Although she personally does not want any medical marijuana dispensaries in town, Johnson is willing to let the voters decide.
While she supports boosting tourism, Johnson wants to see city’s planned convention center moved away from its current location on the Embarcadero. She wants it moved to a location with better parking.
After 32 years in the military, Kennedy, 63, is running on what she calls a common-sense platform.
She supports a two-tier pension plan for employees but would not cut public safety staffing. She would like to find an alternative energy use for the power plant.
Kennedy said she would bring more tourists to town by improving signs along Highways 1 and 101. She opposes medical marijuana dispensaries because she said they are associated with robberies and other criminal activity.
To help the fishing industry, she would like to see sea otters relocated out of the area. This would help boost shellfish populations, she said.
The owner of two restaurants, Leage, 72, has been in business in Morro Bay for 50 years. He describes himself as a problem solver and wants to see the council deal with problems faster.
He said he would cut expenses by merging departments, such as harbor master and fire chief. He would work with the chamber of commerce to fund a full-time promotions coordinator, but he thinks a convention center is unnecessary.
To maintain the city’s working waterfront, Leage wants the city to fight back against state and federal fisheries managers if they propose more catch restrictions.
“Pretty soon, the city is going to have to buy fishing boats and put them out along the Embarcadero,” he said.
A marketer and coach, Smith, 53, said his goal in running for council is to bring pro-growth and no-growth advocates together and end polarization between those who want the city to grow and those who want it to stay the same.
He would save money through early retirements, restructuring pensions and taking a hard look at the services the city provides. The city should also do more to boost the growing opportunities of ecotourism, he said.
The city should also do more in advertising to lure Central Valley residents who would find the city attractive as a nearby place to escape the heat, he said.
He thinks the city is “spinning its wheels” in pursuing medical marijuana.
Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.