Morro Bay City Councilmember Jen Ford’s Failure to Communicate

On Tuesday, I posed two questions to the Morro Bay City Council. I asked these questions and addressed the entire council.

  1. On Sept. 10 of last year, Castle Winds CEO Alla Weinstein, donated $2,000 to then-mayor John Headding’s re-election campaign. On Nov. 1, Weinstein met with the council to negotiate the price and terms of payment for outfall facilities previously used by the Morro Bay Power Plant. This led to concerns from residents about Ms. Weinstein purchasing “access” to the negotiation table on a project that was not properly put out for competitive bidding. Has Ms. Weinstein reached out to the City Council to continue these negotiations? And have members of the City Council disclosed through ex parte any communications with Ms. Weinstein on the public record? And have any members of this body requested continued negotiations on behalf of Ms. Weinstein?
  2. Vistra Energy is currently proposing the world’s largest 600 mega-watt battery storage facility for Morro Bay. Public records indicate Vistra is actively in conversation with city officials. Residents who privately met with council members within the past six months have reported councilmembers proclaiming the project is “a done deal” and “guaranteed,” despite the lack of a completed Environmental Impact Report, a formalized agenda item or a formal opportunity for residents to participate in the public process. During her assembly campaign last year, Assemblywoman Dawn Addis expressed support for the proposed battery storage facility. Has any council member disclosed any ex parte communications with Assemblywoman Addis and/or Vistra Energy staff regarding conversations about the facility?

These questions were left unanswered. The councilperson who could best answer those questions is Councilmember Ford. It’s my understanding that Ms. Ford invited residents to email her about conflict of interest concerns at the City Council meeting on February 14. However, several residents informed me that Ms. Ford has either declined to respond or has ignored their emails about her interests associated with the proposed offshore wind and battery storage facilities. These are critical and controversial issues Ms. Ford has left unaddressed, which are a problem. Ms. Ford also represents Assemblywoman Dawn Addis as her Senior Field Representative. Assemblywoman Addis sits on two subcommittees that review and pass legislation that’s pertinent to those two issues, which are yet to be fully adjudicated through the public process. And recently we’ve learned that Assemblywoman Addis was recently appointed to the Select Committee on Offshore Wind Energy in the state legislature. Addis has publicly expressed support for both projects.

Since my last post, I’ve heard from Councilmember Ford’s supporters who’ve said there is no conflict of interest because (1) Ford isn’t specifically paid by Assemblywoman Addis to vote one way or another and (2) serving in multiple government positions is not a conflict in itself. But they miss the point entirely. As Senior Field Representative, it’s Ms. Ford’s job to advocate for Ms. Addis’ positions. That wouldn’t be an issue generally, but because of Ms. Addis’ specific committee assignments, there is greater political motivation for Councilmember Ford to synchronize her votes with Ms. Addis’ positions.

Councilmember Ford can provide lip service — and she has — by telling constituents that she would vote pursuant to how the majority of residents feel on these issues. Unless there is a ballot initiative or an objective poll to determine where Morro Bay residents stand, it’s hard to credibly determine where the majority stands. Oftentimes, politicians will vote a certain way and cite a “majority” of their constituents who support their position when polling doesn’t reflect that. Even if or when there is something that sufficiently demonstrates majority preference, that doesn’t mean Ms. Ford will necessarily vote consistent to that. As long as Councilmember Ford remains on board as Assemblywoman Addis’ Senior Field Representative, her allegiances will continuously be questioned.

Even if Councilmember Ford didn’t have that job, there are still concerns about the influence of lobbyists and special interests. For example, last year, Ford supported Measure B-22, a controversial initiative that proposed a parcel tax on all Morro Bay homeowners to pay for harbor infrastructure. What she didn’t mention was that the founders and key proponents of Measure B-22 are her paid marketing clients working with Rock Harbor Marketing. That measure was so controversial that it was soundly defeated in the November 2022 election by a whopping 28%. And when her company provided services for then-mayor John Headding last year, she placed her chips on someone who lost by 18%, a noticeably a wide margin. Clearly, Ms. Ford doesn’t have the best barometer of how the community feels.

And when we look at the meeting minutes for all the meetings Ms. Ford attended since she was appointed to the City Council in Sept. 2021, we see her recusing herself several times but has not made any pertinent ex parte disclosures. While other councilmembers and city staff voluntarily disclosed conversations they’ve had with relevant stakeholders and interested parties on key issues, Ms. Ford is the only one who hasn’t. And given what we know about her so far, that shouldn’t instill confidence in her ability to be transparent or vote independently.

Residents who support Ms. Ford have been quick to assign political motivation to me for expressing concerns about her perceived and actual conflicts of interest, but that’s simply not the case. Last year, Councilmember Ford was elected to fill the rest of the late Red Davis’ term on the council through 2024. And Ms. Ford hasn’t actually voted on any board business in open session regarding offshore wind energy or the battery storage plant. But those matters will be discussed in the future. Unless she resigns from the council or recuses herself on those matters (which is problematic due to the amount of recusals she already has), there will always be a cloud of suspicion hanging over her head.

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