Morro Bay Citizens Initiative Opponents Have Explaining to Do

Morro Rock Twilight

On August 31, The Tribune published an article about the Morro Bay citizen-led initiative to preserve the Embarcadero and restrict further industrialization. In their article, The Tribune featured arguments for and against the initiative. Recently, I wrote about the opponents to the initiative and some of the strange arguments they’re making against it. This time around, they trotted out former Morro Bay City Councilwoman Marlys McPherson.

Before I get into her arguments, I wanted to take a moment to explain why McPherson is taking the initiative opposition mantle here.

McPherson served on the Morro Bay City Council from 2016 to 2020. During McPherson’s tenure, Vistra Corp. merged with Dynegy in 2018. Vistra, who is behind the controversial Battery Energy Storage System (BESS) proposal, engaged in settlement talks with the City. According to meeting minutes from 2018 through 2020, McPherson attended closed session meetings that discussed terms of the settlement. In exchange for Vistra agreeing to grant them temporary and permanent easements required for the Water Reclamation Facility and agreeing to tear down the power plant and its three emission stacks by 2027, the City granted Vistra a fast-tracked process to push through their BESS proposal. The settlement was eventually approved in 2021 after McPherson left office. However, But McPherson is currently a member of the Governmental Affairs Committee of the Chamber of Commerce. Members of that committee co-signed the Aug. 10 New Times letter, but had not disclosed their affiliation with the Chamber. The Chamber of Commerce lists Vistra as one of their “excel investors.”

Let’s get to the Tribune article and break down the issues McPherson has with the initiative.

“Assembly Bill 205 allows developers to submit large renewable energy projects to the California Energy Commission for approval — bypassing local jurisdictions such as the Morro Bay City Council, according to McPherson,” wrote The Tribune. “According to McPherson, the initiative would transfer project approval to state agencies, and Morro Bay residents would lose a chance to give input on the battery plant’s design.”

Assembly Bill 205 is something McPherson and others brought up previously. That legislation is certainly an issue. McPherson and others correctly stated that Vistra could potentially use AB 205 to circumvent local jurisdictional authority to get their project approved. But McPherson is naive to think that Vistra wouldn’t utilize that route without a successfully passed initiative. The City Council could vote to deny the project and Vistra could still use AB 205 to push their project through in spite of that decision — even if we let the entire public process play itself out. To say the initiative alone would incentivize Vistra to pursue the AB 205 route is disingenuous at best.

Let’s talk about the public process itself, which McPherson discusses at rather great length.

Given the proposed BESS project is a literal byproduct of a settlement agreement that was hammered out behind closed doors and outside of public view, any promises of a malleable public process are illusory. At best, it’s just a long and drawn-out rearrangement of chairs on the Titanic. All residents are able to do is nitpick BESS’ specifications, but we’re still dealing with a project with experimental and combustible lithium ion technology that is surrounded by residents. And comments made by Morro Bay city officials about the project don’t exactly instill community confidence.

“The plant would most likely store lithium ion batteries, but the type of battery could change as technology evolves, according to Morro Bay Community Development Director Scot Graham,” writes The Tribune.

The City of Morro Bay should only commit to technology that is evolved enough to possess the lowest risk to residents. Period. So why are City officials dragging their feet to address concerns by residents that our community is being treated more like a petri dish and less like actual stakeholders?

In June of last year, the City of Morro Bay issued a Notice of Preparation to inform the public that they were preparing an Environmental Impact Report that was originally slated to be completed by Summer this year. Public inspection of the EIR has now been delayed to January and February of next year. Various environmental issues regarding lithium ion battery technology and the project itself have been brought before the City Council; those concerns were left unaddressed by the Council and staff. Vistra has not responded to resident concerns and have chosen instead to threaten them with frivolous lawsuits.

While every project of this magnitude can, should and will go through the standardized public process, this project still feels inevitable, despite a litany of red flags.

Like most ballot initiatives in the state of California, the citizen-led initiative to preserve our zoning on the waterfront doesn’t require the support of the Governor or the Legislature. In fact, ballot initiatives propose a direct challenge to any legislation in place, meaning that legislation like AB 205 can’t overrule it. And there is nothing in AB 205 that explicitly precludes any constitutional amendments or legislation from challenging projects like the proposed BESS. In fact, AB 205 was specifically designed to bypass stalemates that occur within the local jurisdictional authority itself (i.e. Morro Bay City Council), not ballot initiatives. Not even the California Energy Commission’s authority can invalidate a successfully passed ballot initiative.

The problem with McPherson and opponents to the initiative is that they’re deliberately vague about their motives.

Since I endorsed the initiative, I heard from some initiative opponents who claimed that they aren’t astroturfing for Vistra; that they actually oppose the battery storage plant, but disagree with the initiative due to the issues it may cause. The problem is: none of them have gone on the record to state their opposition or participate in any community discussions on effective ways to oppose the project. In fact, those who claimed they opposed the project had actually gone on the record at City Council meetings and agenda correspondence to lobby for rezoning the property to light industrial use, which only benefits Vistra.

And when I proposed a community task force online and at the City Council to discuss viable alternatives to BESS, I was met with crickets from opposition leaders.

So what is their endgame, exactly? What are their motivations? Why are they so suddenly concerned about the initiative? Are they concerned because they received word that the initiative has enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot next year? Are they concerned the community will rise up and say no just like they did with their ill-fated Measure B-22 parcel tax?

They should explain themselves. I’m all ears.

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