Morro Bay Councilmember Jen Ford Should Resign

Last night, I called for Morro Bay Councilwoman Jen Ford to resign. This is not something I wanted to do, especially when they were just elected into office after being appointed — and after I voluntarily withdrew my FPPC complaint against them last year.

Here’s why.

Ms. Ford accepted a full-time position as Senior Field Representative for Assemblywoman Dawn Addis with a salary of $57,600-$136,800 with health benefits. As our city’s legal counsel correctly mentioned at last night’s council meeting, it’s not uncommon for city leadership to also accept roles as field representatives. However, where the conflict specifically lies in Addis’ committee assignments and how those committees will be reviewing legislation that will affect city business. Though counsel didn’t currently see incompatibility between Ms. Ford’s position as councilmember and assembly field representative, there will be issues down the road.

Assemblywoman Addis sits on the Natural Resources Committee, which is expected to oversee proposed legislation that fast-tracks infrastructure including battery storage facilities. Ms. Addis also serves on the Fisheries and Aquaculture Joint Committee, which is currently reviewing legislation in support of wind farm energy off the Central Coast. The City Council is expected to review and vote on the proposed Vistra battery storage facility and city business pertaining to the offshore wind farm in development. This is significant board business. When she served on the City Council, Dawn Addis made public comments on and off the dais indicating her support for both projects.

Due to the constraints of time with public comment, I was unable to mention that Ms. Addis also serves on the Natural Resources Committee, which looks at proposed amendments to the rules associated with California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Every major infrastructure project the City of Morro Bay has requires a CEQA review. Should Ms. Addis propose amendments to CEQA guidelines, it’s unclear whether Ms. Ford (as councilmember) will make determinations based on CEQA as it currently stands or CEQA guidelines as proposed or supported by Assemblywoman Addis.

Ms. Ford has a history of conflicts of interest. In her first nine months of holding office, Ms. Ford recused herself nine times. Ms. Ford did that because she is CEO and co-founder of Rock Harbor Marketing, a Morro Bay marketing agency with local clientele with direct involvement in city business. Although Ms. Ford informed concerned residents last week that she was no longer part of Rock Harbor Marketing, information about her status at the company remains unchanged on Rock Harbor Marketing’s website, social media and Ms. Ford’s own LinkedIn profile.

After I publicly mentioned potential conflicts of interest involving her now-former client Natural Healing Center, Rock Harbor Marketing scrambled to delete any and every mention of NHC. Last year, NHC founder Helios Dayspring was sentenced to less than two years in federal prison for bribing a county supervisor and filing a false income tax return. In April 2021, NHC opened a cannabis dispensary in Morro Bay. In Sept. that same year, Ms. Ford was appointed to the City Council and filled a seat vacated by the passing of former Councilmember Robert “Red” Davis. According to Mr. Davis and Rock Harbor Marketing, Mr. Davis met Ms. Ford when Rock Harbor Marketing provided marketing services for the San Luis Obispo Bike Club in Feb. 2019. After Ford was appointed to her seat, the City of Morro Bay conducted an internal review of NHC’s commercial cannabis permit and found no regulations were violated.

When they voted yes to appoint Ms. Ford to the City Council, neither Mr. Headding nor then-councilmember Addis disclosed their business relationship to Ms. Ford and Rock Harbor Marketing.

Last year, I raised concerns about a potential conflict of interest involving a business relationship between Ms. Ford and now-former mayor John Headding. Ms. Ford provided marketing services for Mayor Headding’s re-election campaigns in 2020 and 2022. Despite expressing concerns about her involvement, Ms. Ford never personally communicated with me to clarify her role with Mr. Headding. This led me to file a Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) complaint against Ms. Ford and Mr. Headding. After I withdrew the complaint, the FPPC informed me they already dismissed the complaint on their own due to “insufficient evidence.” Since the FPPC had not regularly updated me on the complaint status, I contacted them and was told Ms. Ford was “not cooperative,” specifically as it pertained to questions about the duration of her business relationship with Mr. Headding.

Shortly after the FPPC complaint was filed, I received evidence that Mr. Ford attempted to actively report and censor comments that were critical of Mr. Headding on the social media platform Nextdoor. When reports are made on Nextdoor, a local review team assesses the reports and makes determinations based on consensus. If consensus indicates the reported post or comment should be taken down, it will be taken down. But if that person is reported repeatedly, Nextdoor will step in and take decisive action to suspend the reported user temporarily or permanently. Mr. Ford attempted to shape discourse on a platform that is popular among Morro Bay residents during election season when his own client is running for mayor in a hotly contested election. At the same time, residents critical of the City Council reported receiving harassing messages from Mr. Ford on Nextdoor that made them feel “uncomfortable.”

In late 2021, I met with Mr. Ford and had a productive conversation about his wife, Rock Harbor Marketing’s business relationships, and how those relationships were potentially intertwined with the city. I received personal assurances that recusals and divestments would be made to eliminate conflicts of interest. However, Ms. Ford’s problematic pattern and practice persisted after that meeting. When I revealed on Nextdoor that the meeting occurred, Mr. Ford indicated in comments that Rock Harbor Marketing made no divestments. When I mentioned at the City Council meeting that Mr. Ford made comments that were pertinent to my FPPC complaint, Mr. Ford hastily removed his comments. However, the comments were saved and preserved for the record. Since then, my personal social media accounts were restricted from seeing Rock Harbor Marketing’s social media accounts in a clear but ultimately vain attempt to obstruct any fact-finding.

I’ve been the recipient of many of Mr. Ford’s impassioned and oftentimes hostile comments toward me. I understand that he feels I’ve personally and unfairly encroached on his family business. But I’d argue the Fords made the clear choice to get involved in public office, which adds an extra shade of gray to how he and Ms. Ford should conduct themselves. It’s one thing to be an ambitious mom-and-pop marketing agency looking to make a name for themselves in their community, but it’s another thing entirely when the CEO becomes a councilmember and doesn’t proactively review potential conflicts of interest until after it’s uncovered. What may have started as inconsequential and legal business relationships became complicated once Ms. Ford was appointed to the City Council.

I argue that her ex parte nondisclosures, recusals and non-recusals shows a clear incompatibility with the office she was appointed and duly elected to serve. She may say that her allegiance is with the people of Morro Bay, but that is clearly not what her words and actions has shown. Above all else, Ms. Ford’s allegiance is to herself. Ms. Ford’s professional and political life in Morro Bay was born from cronyism, privilege and entitlement. In Morro Bay, nearly every political benefit she received was given to her, but not earned. These conflicts will undoubtedly persist unless Assemblywoman Addis is reassigned to different committees that don’t impact city business and Ms. Ford does what she says she’ll do, which is continue to recuse herself when she needs to. However, the amount of recusals she’ll likely make during her tenure as Senior Field Representative will be plentiful enough to render her ineffective on the City Council.

Should she resign from the City Council, Ms. Ford will be able to be more effective as Senior Field Representative without having to wrestle with the overhead of voting on Morro Bay issues that intertwine with Assemblywoman Addis’ positions. She can’t serve two masters. And more than anyone else on that council, she should know better.

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