SANTA CRUZ -- The City Council on Tuesday preliminarily approved extending the contract of a key desalination consultant contract but limited the company's work to a pending environmental analysis, not aiding in a public outreach campaign for the controversial water supply project.
The council unanimously agreed to have a task force made up of council members and members of the Soquel Creek Water District, the city's desalination partner, reduce the scope of work for consultant Kennedy/Jenks. On a 4-3 vote, the council also agreed to bring the matter back for a vote in January before any money is spent.
The contract extension, as approved by the task force on Nov. 7, would have allowed for paying the firm up to $390,000 in 2013 for work on the environmental analysis and other design aspects of the $123 million plant. The city and district have spent $1.4 million on the company's work since 2008.
The city's water director, Bill Kocher, said the primary purpose of the year's extension was to have the firm help another consultant respond to questions from the public about an environmental impact report for the project due in March.
"We want to make it easy to navigate ... something that makes it more accessible to people," Kocher said.
Desalination opponents urged the council not to spend more money on consultants when there are growing questions among the public about whether desalination is the right way to protect the city against drought and allow the Soquel Creek district to rest its overdrafted aquifers. Seventy-two percent of voters approved Measure P on Nov. 6 to require a future vote on approving the plant.
"A lot of people are looking to you now to come up with Plan B in case voters don't approve desal," Rick Longinotti, an author of Measure P, told the council. "Wouldn't this be a good opportunity to develop a Plan B and implement it?"
"I don't disagree that we may need a Plan B and let the community decide," Councilman Ryan Coonerty said, adding that the environmental report needs to be completed to fully understand the plans. "But we need a Plan A if we are going to have a Plan B."
Coonerty recommended the contract extension but accepted limitations sought by Vice Mayor Hilary Bryant and Councilwoman Katherine Beiers on keeping the consultant's work focused on getting the long-delayed environmental analysis completed. The consultant will be permitted to work on how to deal with the high-energy demands of the plant, but the contract also had called for evaluation of how the project would be delivered and communication with the public about the plans.
"Things that potentially could wait, I have some concerns that we are going to spend that money up-front without reason," Bryant said.
Mayor Don Lane, a member of the desalination task force, said the panel already had decided it would more carefully scrutinize public outreach materials produced by the consultant to ensure they didn't appear as advocacy. Opponents have charged that previous public outreach materials seemed to promote the plant.
"Don't use our money to convince us that desal is good for us," said Jude Todd, a resident since 1980. "We want to see serious, unbiased alternatives now."
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