The city of Morro Bay systematically excludes the public from participating in meetings where the Planning Commission and City Council make major land use decisions. Because these exclusions are against the law and are ongoing, they amount to a “pattern of abuse.” That is, the city’s violations are more than isolated and accidental events.
According to California’s Government Code, the city “shall” (is required to) provide opportunities for public involvement during general plan amendments through public hearings at both Planning Commission and City Council meetings. Notice of these hearings must be published in the newspaper 10 days before the hearing and on meeting agendas so people can know about a proposed decision and decide whether to attend.
But the city of Morro Bay excludes public involvement and full participation by not providing noticed public hearings for critical decisions related to General Plan and Zoning Ordinance amendments, and to the highly contested water reclamation facility. Morro Bay residents are being denied their legal rights to know when these important decisions will be made, to attend the hearings and to participate in the decision-making process.
How are these important land use decisions made without noticed public hearings? The city systematically misrepresents these hearing items on meeting agendas as “business items” and “consent agenda” items rather than “public hearings.” Disguised and conducted as “business items” and “consent agenda” items, the city does not provide either of the mandatory notices — the 10-day notice published in the newspaper or the agenda notice — that an important land use decision is to be made. The immediate result? Decisions are made in a nearly empty Vet’s Hall instead of with a standing-room-only crowd.
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Here are some examples:
Agendized as a “business item” and with no notice or hearing, the City Council voted unanimously on April 25, 2017, to not select water reclamation as part of the sewer project and to spend money only on secondary, and possibly tertiary, wastewater treatment. The Vet’s Hall was nearly empty. Shortly after this decision, the City Council astonishingly claimed it never voted to exclude water reclamation (even though it’s recorded on video) and began contracting to spend millions on the reclamation facility, disobeying their own unanimous vote (that still stands) to eliminate it.
The three examples below involve adoption of the Downtown Waterfront Strategic Plan, without notices and without public hearings. As noted in staff reports, this plan is part of Morro Bay’s General Plan Local Coastal Program, the amendment of which requires at least one noticed public hearing by the Planning Commission and another by the City Council. The waterfront and “general” sections were approved first and the downtown section of the plan was approved later at a separate meeting.
- On May 16, 2017, the Planning Commission’s discussion about the Downtown Waterfront Strategic Plan was disguised on the agenda as a “business item,” with no published 10-day notice, no agenda notice and no public hearing.
- At the Sept. 12, 2017, meeting, the City Council approved the waterfront and general sections of the plan, which was also falsely packaged as a “business item” with no published 10-day notice, no agenda notice and no public hearing.
- On Jan. 23, 2018, the council approved the downtown portion of the Strategic Plan camouflaged as a “consent agenda” item — misinforming the public that it was a routine matter requiring no discussion at all — with no published 10-day notice, no agenda notice and no public hearing.
These decisions, made not only without notice but concealed, will determine the long-term development of Morro Bay’s downtown and waterfront.
Morro Bay’s Municipal Code specifically requires a noticed public hearing for a zoning ordinance amendment that imposes a new regulation on property. (See section 17.64.020) On May 8, 2018, the City Council adopted an ordinance that imposed a new regulation on property “to limit the number of vacation rentals in residential zones to 250 at any one time.”
This highly contested issue was misrepresented on the meeting agenda as a “consent item,” again, misinforming the public that this was a routine matter requiring no public discussion. In addition, instead of amending the zoning ordinance to add the new land use regulation, the City Council parked it in a section of the business tax certificates ordinance under which, according to City Attorney Mr. Joseph Pannone, no public hearing was required.
The only transparency going on at the city of Morro Bay is the transparent systematic evasion of public participation in important land use decisions.
Cynthia Hawley is a land use and environmental protection attorney. She lives in Morro Bay.