Morro Bay mayor candidates talk town unity after close race

Morro Bay mayoral candidate John Weiss has congratulated John Headding on his unofficial victory for mayor. Weiss believes Headding will likely get the official nod once remaining votes are counted — and both want to see community healing over the divisive sewer debate, they said.

Weiss and Headding spoke to each other Wednesday about how best to move forward and unite a fractured city over the planning for the new $126 million wastewater treatment and water recycling plant at South Bay Boulevard and Highway 1, they told The Tribune.

The race is separated by 188 votes with Headding — a supporter of the planned new facility — topping Weiss, an opponent of the city’s sewer location, as of the latest report at 4:27 p.m. Friday. The gap increased by more than 80 votes since the last count released Wednesday. Official results won’t be certified for several more days,

As it stands, Headding has 52 percent of the tally (2,005 votes) while Weiss garnered 47.9 percent (1,904 votes). Headding said he remains cautiously optimistic.

“I offered my congratulations and committed my efforts to healing and actions that the City Council would consider,” Weiss said. “It was a very positive conversation. (Headding) is respectful of me, and I’m respectful of him.”

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The new mayor will replace current mayor Jamie Irons, who chose not to run for re-election, when the count becomes official.

The council recently passed a $41 rate increase to help pay for the planned new wastewater system, but not before fierce community debate.

More than 2,158 protest ballots were submitted (though the city didn’t assess them for validity because they didn’t meet the 2,794 needed for a majority plus one) in a Proposition 218 vote over the rate increase. The location of the planned facility outside of city limits has also divided the city over costs.

The group, Citizens for Affordable Living, submitted roughly 1,000 protest ballots at a Sept. 11 council meeting, but the council determined the letters were gathered before the council’s specific rate increase had been calculated and failed to meet other criteria, including a date, which City Manager Scott Collins previously told The Tribune was required for legal validity.

Headding said that Weiss and he have been “friends for a long time,” and they laid the groundwork during the election to be respectful and not finger-point.

“One of my biggest campaign promises is to try to mend the fences in town and ask for John’s assistance in dealing with negativity, miscommunication and misunderstanding, while working together collectively in the future,” Headding said. “Wastewater is one of 10 issues that are extremely important right now, and we don’t want to lose an important contingent (of residents) on key issues looming.”

Morro Bay’s new wastewater treatment and water recycling facility will cost an estimated $126 million at its new site at the intersection of South Bay Boulevard and Highway 1. This image shows its existing plant near the ocean. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Headding has cited pension costs, budget challenges and harbor upgrades as important city topics.

Weiss said he’s concerned about the planned new facilities’ cost and location, which Headding supports to move treatment away from the coast.

If his lead stands, Headding said that he would work with Weiss to get out accurate information on the city’s planning, involve Citizens for Affordable Living and strive to keep wastewater system costs down.

“I want to make sure cost is managed appropriately,” Headding said. “We’ll work toward value engineering and low interest loans to further reduce the rate for residents, not oversize the project.”

John Weiss003814
John Weiss, candidate for Morro Bay mayor. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Dawn Addis, another proponent of the new sewer location, was the leader among City Council candidates, earning 29.5 percent of the vote as of Wednesday’s tally.

Other council candidates Jeff Heller, at 22.2 percent, and Betty Winholtz, who garnered 21.7, say a plant closer to the coast, where the current wastewater facility exists, would be a cheaper option — indicating whoever wins could likely be a dissenting vote on the city’s current direction.

Heller has been a vocal advocate for the city to count the 1,000 rate protest ballots.

“There’s a lot of healing that has to go on,” Heller said. “I want to work together as best we can. ... I still think the project is out of whack, but I’m very glad to be on the council.”

Meanwhile, Aaron Ochs of the group Save Morro Bay, said in a Twitter message that, after a records request of the 1,000 protest ballots received but not counted by the city, “our attorney is reviewing” those letters.

“We are attempting to independently verify the city’s claim that most of the ballots were invalidated,” Ochs said.