Morro Bay mayor recuses himself, then lobbies council
March 31, 2016
By JOSH FRIEDMAN
Morro Bay Mayor Jamie Irons removed himself from a vote on housing regulations last week to avoid a financial conflict of interest. However, Irons then lobbied the council both orally and in writing to vote in a manner that would benefit him financially.
Following Irons’ lobbying efforts, the remaining council members voted 3-1 to halt a vacation rental ban that Irons opposed. The sequence prompted a Morro Bay citizen to submit a complaint to the Fair Political Practices Commission alleging Irons breached state conflict of interest laws.
California laws on conflicts of interest can be confusing. For example, while the law allows a public official who has a financial interest in an item to speak during public comment after he recuses himself, the law also prohibits the official from using his position to influence the government decision.
In a complaint to the California Fair Political Practices Commission, Morro Bay resident Linda Stedjee says Irons used his position to influence the council decision on the vacation rental ban. Irons told CalCoastNews he did not do that, and that he was speaking based on personal experience, not personal interest.
Last week, the Morro Bay council voted on changes to regulations for secondary dwelling units and guest houses.
Irons and his wife, Monica Irons, the human resources director for the city of San Luis Obispo, own multiple properties in Morro Bay. One property they own has a secondary dwelling unit, and they have submitted plans, as well, to construct a guest house. Irons recused himself from last week’s vote because of the secondary unit and the guest house plan, he said.
The proposed ordinance would have banned property owners from using secondary dwelling units as vacation rentals. City staff initially argued it was necessary to enact the vacation rental ban so secondary dwelling units would remain options for affordable long-term rental housing.
Nevertheless, on March 21, the day before the council meeting, Morro Bay Community Development Director Scot Graham changed direction and sent a memo to the city council recommending the vacation rental ban be stricken from the the secondary dwelling unit ordinance.
At the council meeting, Morro Bay planner Whitney McIlvaine said staff decided to strike the vacation rental ban in response to comments and questions received by the city. The council correspondence packet for the March 22 meeting only contained two letters about the vacation rental ban. One of the letters came from Jamie and Monica Irons.
The mayor and his wife submitted the letter the morning after Morro Bay staff recommended eliminating the vacation rental ban. Irons said his input did not affect planning staff’s decision.
However, sources had previously told CalCoastNews Irons would frequently meet with city planning and management staff in attempts to influence decisions that pertain to his property holdings.
Stedjee’s FPPC complaint questions whether Irons lobbied the city on the vacation rental ban prior to submitting the letter and speaking at the council meeting.
“Until just a day before the council meeting, staff had strongly stated its support for the prohibition of using secondary units as vacation rentals, and had made a strong case to support its position,” the complaint states. “Then, suddenly, right before the meeting, and after the original agenda was published, they completely reversed their position — something obviously financially beneficial to the mayor.”
Irons disagrees. He said he recused himself out of an abundance of caution and his comments to the council were not focused on the vacation rental ban.
“The comments submitted to council were our comments based on personal experience, not personal interest and addressed the ordinance as a whole with eight requests for consideration,” Irons said. “My public comments were merely an expansion of the letter we submitted to council.”
In his letter to the council, Irons included eight directions on how the city should construct the ordinance. Number three included Irons’ views on vacation rentals.
“Prohibited uses of vacation rentals — remove entirely from secondary unit and guesthouses,” Irons said in his letter. “Vacation rentals in conjunction with residences, should be encouraged not discouraged as it provides income to offset home ownership and provided TOT and business license revenue to the city.”
The council voted to pass the ordinance without a vacation rental ban. The ordinance will return to the council for final approval on April 12.