The Santa Barbara County grand jury criticized county supervisors this week for allowing “unfettered access” to marijuana lobbyists as the board voted to let cannabis cultivation explode in the Santa Ynez Valley region and Carpinteria with little regulation and a flimsy tax regime that has deprived the county of millions of dollars.
The 26-page report released Tuesday cited emails showing the close relationship that developed between the industry and two supervisors, along with a lead member of the county executive staff. At times, the grand jury wrote, it seemed lobbyists were not only recommending how the supervisors should vote, but trying to “command” them.
Normally, land-use policy starts with large public meetings and country planning staff, who then make recommendations to the board. But in this case, the grand jury wrote, policy recommendations were hashed out by an ad hoc committee of two supervisors — Das Williams and Steve Lavagnino — which was not subject to open meeting laws. The committee then directed staff on how it wanted the industry to be regulated.
The supervisors met frequently with lobbyists and big growers, often just a day or two before critical board hearings on cannabis.
“The Board of Supervisors granted nearly unfettered access to cannabis growers and industry lobbyists that was undisclosed to the public during the creation of the cannabis ordinances,” the jury wrote.
“On March 20, 2018, the most extreme example was an email sent by a Board member to a lobbyist, during a Board meeting, asking the lobbyist if they agreed with a [planning and development] staff recommendation.”
Per its rules, the jury does not identify anyone by name, but since it focused on the two-person ad hoc committee, it was clear in many references that the individuals were Williams and Lavagnino.
The jury wrote that “the governance in this matter took the form of some Supervisors aggressively pushing through their own agendas while other Supervisors meekly followed or resigned themselves to the inevitable.”
Lavagnino suggested on Thursday that the jury was biased against marijuana legalization. “The demographics of the grand jury are not reflective of the county as a whole,” he said. “It is not at all surprising to me that a group of predominantly white senior citizens is uncomfortable accepting that cannabis is now mainstream. We will review their recommendations and answer them as required.”
Williams said the jury pursued only “one side of the story.”
The grand jury is composed of citizens tasked to serve as a watchdog for agencies within the county. The report’s findings largely echo those in a Los Angeles Times investigation published in June 2019.
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