Cayucos and Morro Bay balk on hiring lobbyist long-term
February 17, 2011
By JACK MCCURDY of the SLO Coast Journal
The Morro Bay City Council and Cayucos Sanitary District board have been brimming with confidence over the past year or so that its proposed new wastewater treatment plant, scheduled to cost untold millions and certain to saddle ratepayers with significant increases in fees, would win necessary approval of the California Coastal Commission in order to be constructed starting next year and finished in 2014.
This despite two letters from the Coastal Commission staff clearly stating it is fatally deficient, rejection by the Morro Bay Planning Commission and numerous criticisms from residents, including several retired engineers, that it is sure to be turned down and sent back for total revision.
The Council and District board, which own, operate and will build a new plant under their Joint Powers Agreement (JPA), as well as the staffs of the two agencies ignored all this, even scoffing at the opposition at times.
Then, at a JPA meeting last week on Feb. 10, the Council and board seemed to wake up to reality, buckle under the weight of evidence against their project or simply get cold feet–no one knows which for sure. But instead of awarding a $130,000, 10-month contract to hire a lobbyist to sell the project to members of the Commission–to “educate” them, as Cayucos board attorney Tim Carmel put it–the JPA members agreed to hire the lobbyist for only $12,000 over the next 30 days just to see what their chances are of winning Commission approval.
The first of four options presented to the members in a staff report–staff recommendations almost always carry the day with the Council and Cayucos board–was to hire the lobbyist for an extended period. But instead, after listening to more public comment calling the hiring of a lobbyist to persuade the Commission a waste of time and money, alternative ideas started to emerge from the JPA members.
Cayucos board member Mike Foster strongly objected, noting that the hiring of a lobbyist didn’t even come from the elected Council and Cayucos board members but from the staff. He called it a lack of “accountability.”
“This is not advocacy but bribery,” he said. “It offends my sensibility.”
Former Council member Betty Winholtz, who lost her bid for mayor last November, said, “I can’t believe you think this is justified when the Commission staff sent you two letters saying what is required.”
Resident Richard Margetson asked how the JPA is going to be able to “get a lobbyist up to speed on all the technical points” involved in the project in a short time. “It is absolutely ridiculous.”
After saying “I am on board” for hiring a lobbyist to sell the project to the Commission, Morro Bay mayor Bill Yates suddenly backed off and said, “The lobbyist could give us advice on whether we are barking up the wrong tree.” Cayucos board chair Robert Enns mentioned hiring the lobbyist only as an “initial step.”
Dennis Delzeit, the contract project manager, responded, “If you want a preliminary analysis , then (the lobbyist) could determine what to do.”
Enns, widely considered the most influence Cayucos board member, suggested asking the lobbyist to “go through the (project) materials and give us advice on where we need to go. How do we proceed? I support that.”
Other JPA members chimed in, and the motion to approve the contract with Susan McCabe of McCabe and Co., Inc., a former Coastal Commissioner, as the lobbyist was approved 4-1 by the City Council and 4-1 by the Cayucos board.
Voting against the contract was Council member Noah Smukler and Foster, who both oppose the project and are convinced that the Commission will require that a variety of alternative sites for the new plant be explored. The project calls for the new plant to be almost adjacent the the old, present one next to Estero Bay off Atascadero Road and near Morro Bay High School.
Just within recent days, questions have been raised about McCabe as the lobbyist, resulting from her comments in an email about “spoon feeling” a member of the Coastal Commission she was lobbying last year. The chair of the Board of Port Commissioners she was working for was quoted as saying he was “appalled” by what she said.
The staffs and members of the City Council and Cayucos board reportedly were looking into the matter. The contract apparently has not yet been awarded to McCabe.