The City Doesn’t Want You Asking Questions. Why?

They’re desperate.

According to two city officials who spoke to Save Morro Bay on the condition of anonymity, Mayor Jamie Irons and two unspecified councilmembers are reportedly encouraging city employees to publish letters to the editor that support the proposed Water Reclamation Facility, the proposed water/sewer rate hikes while discouraging residents from asking for more information. The same officials expressed concern that employees may be coerced into publicly supporting the project.

Irons has reportedly directed city employees to make the following points: successfully protesting the Prop. 218 will result in delays that affected our neighbors in Los Osos for nearly thirty years; that asking for information about the project is distracting and time-consuming, despite officials volunteering to hold office hours about the project for several dates; that seeking public records pertaining to the city’s project history should be “actively discouraged.”

We’re aware of at least four letters sent to the media by city employees, advocating positions as reportedly outlined by Irons and members of the City Council. One of the letters, which was written by City IT Technician Stephen Doerr, was published in The Tribune on August 6:

“The contention over the proposed Morro Bay sewer plant and expected costs to residents is an ongoing issues that has no end in sight. It is becoming reminiscent of the Los Osos sewer debacle that went on for years, ended up happening (and no, I’m sure not all were happy with the end choice) and now life is going on for the citizens of Los Osos, albeit at an exacerbated monthly fee because of the delays.

This is the direction Morro Bay is headed. Morro Bay’s public servants are being directed daily away from their jobs to retrieve information that the public is requesting. This disruption is time consuming and costly outside of the original issue, the new sewer.

Please consider what all is entailed when you ask for this information. At best, it should be provided at the expense of the persons requesting it. Stop holding up the inevitable, and let’s move on.”

Requesting information is not only legal, but widely expected for a public works project of this magnitude. Asking questions and seeking records has nothing to do with “holding up the inevitable,” and it’s ridiculous to even think that it is.

Obviously, this raises an ethical issue of government employees, who haven’t disclosed their employment status with readers, urging residents to stop looking for information while advocating city positions. If Prop. 218 protest letters were legally construed as ballots, this would raise legal issues about electioneering.

According to the same city officials we spoke to, there is concern that city employees penning letters are being coerced into advocating this particular position. Is that concern founded?

In 2013, the Morro Bay City Council pushed to fire then-City Manager Andrea Lueker and former City Attorney Robert Schultz. Despite signing a separation agreement that included a non-disparagement clause — which stated “the parties agree not to disparage, directly or indirectly, each other in any way or to make negative, derogatory, or untrue statements about each other” — Irons reportedly told residents in early 2014 that “insubordination” was the cause for Lueker and Schultz’s ouster. That remark was in reference to residents Lueker and Schultz reportedly conversed with, many of whom were actively critical of the Irons administration and his handling of the wastewater project.

In our previous blog, we discussed the actions of private citizens — with city connections — who initially weren’t transparent with their efforts to support the city’s positions. Since then, they’ve made strides toward better transparency in their messaging, which we appreciate. But we continue to see these issues arise from supporters of this project, specifically city employees in this case. Why? If the project is able to provide water recycling to residents at the low, low “surcharge” of $41/mo., why does the City allegedly feel compelled to trot out their employees to discourage residents from learning more about it?

Let’s be clear. Everyone is entitled to their opinions about this project, but there are issues with the city’s outreach and communication that greatly concerns us. These concerns are growing by the day and public trust continues to erode.

Save Morro Bay encourages residents to continue seeking information from all perspectives.

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