This story first appeared on Newsmakers with Jerry Roberts on June 12, 2019.
It’s been an open secret for months that a reporter for the L.A. Times has been sniffing around for a piece about the surprise emergence of tiny Santa Barbara County (3,789 square miles) as the cannabis cultivation capital of California (163,696 sq. mi.).
The piece finally landed yesterday, with a boffo lede that reveals, amid a few sentences of pastoral scene setting, that the county is now home to the two largest legal pot grows in the world (!).
Anyone with a policy interest in the subject — civic, economic, medicinal, personal, recreational — should definitely dig into all 3,464 words. For others who, like us, share more of an addiction to the guilty pleasure of political gossip, the bottom line is this: Not Good for Das.
In addition to recounting the story of how Santa Barbara became home to 35 percent of the cultivation licenses in the Golden State (a narrative much of which, it must be said in fairness, was told in real time by Nick Welsh and the unfortunately moved-on-to-bigger-things Kelsey Brugger), Times investigative reporter Joe Mozingo discloses for the first time some intriguing details of the relationships Supervisor Das Williams has had with figures in the marijuana industry.
As every schoolchild knows, Das and Supervisor Steve Lavagnino became known as the “Doobie Brothers” among the cognoscenti, as they formed an ad hoc, two-man (thus not subject to open meeting requirements under California’s Brown Act) committee to put together the county’s pot ordinance, during the two years following the 2016 statewide vote that legalized recreational marijuana.
Lavagnino gets dinged in the piece for taking $12k in campaign contributions the month before the final vote on the measure, but it’s Das — who’s up for reelection next year — who takes the worst of it.
Through Public Records Act requests, Mozingo obtained emails and calendars which, he wrote, demonstrate that “marijuana lobbyists and growers had easy and regular access to Williams and Lavagnino.”
Among other things, he reports that Williams:
- Received $16,500 in contributions in 2017 and 2018 to his campaign fund for supervisor, an office to which he was elected in 2016, while the ordinance was being drafted.
- Worked on behalf of growers to defeat a proposal that would have required them to bear the costs of neighborhood appeals of their permits to operate: “Don’t worry, I’ll fix it with a 50-50 recovery model. Don’t tell anyone though,” he wrote to one, promising to push for a measure requiring appealing neighbors to pay half the cost. “On it, we will cost split it if I get my way,” he wrote to another.
- Socialized and met frequently with Graham Farrar, a grower in Carpinteria and president of the Carp Growers political coalition, writing a recommendation on his behalf to officials in Culver City, where Farrar wanted to do business, and discussing shows they could see together at the Santa Barbara Bowl.
- Signed and sent a letter to the Coastal Commission that was drafted by a cannabis consultant with the powerhouse Sacramento lobbying firm California Strategies, to get sign-off on the pot ordinance in the coastal zone. “This is very faithful to what we discussed,” Das responded to the consultant. “We will submit it without changes.”
- Scheduled a “Sailing Trip/Diving” trip on his calendar for him and his wife with another California Strategies associate, at a time when the supes were being lobbied by the firm for a crucial approval their clients sought to allow growers with little documentation to cultivate on an interim basis. .
“Williams said the contributions and his friendships did not influence his decisions,” Mozingo reported. “’I have friends on the other side of this, too. This is a small community.’”
WHAT DAS SAYS: That is a point Das emphasized when Newsmakers reached out to him for elaboration on the quotes published in the Times, in response to the story’s portrayal of him as being in the pocket of the industry.
“As you ask that question, I am at a high school graduation as a guest of one of the anti-cannabis families,” he said via text.
“I go back with many of the Carpinteria Valley association folks for decades, and have taken contributions from them too.
“That is what is so painful about this debate, close friends very divided. I’ll keep working to get it under control so we won’t be so divided!
“Didn’t even go to see (the Bowl concert referenced in the story). On the (Coastal Commission) letter I communicated with CVA and CATE school too in an effort to, since everyone wanted to move onto our enforcement effort, get everyone to have consistent positions before the Coastal Commission.”
More broadly, on the story’s premise that he crafted an ordinance that was overwhelmingly pro-grower, the 1st District supe had this to say:
“The article covers only one side of the story and doesn’t reflect what I’ve done to meet the concerns of Carpinteria residents, which resulted in the Carpinteria Valley having the strictest regulations in the county, including a cap on grows and odor control. We have put in place rigorous enforcement including criminal enforcement in an industry difficult to enforce.
“Do I think we have more to do? Yes but both odor and enforcement has improved since the ordinance took effect last November.”
A FINE DAY FOR A FUNDRAISER: Surely it was a coincidence that Das e-blasted the invite for the first big fundraiser of his 2020 reelection campaign, a cruise on which he invites supporters annually to celebrate his birthday, a few hours after the L.A. Times story hit:
It’s that time of the year again for my annual birthday cruise aboard the Condor Express! And this year’s cruise is extra special.
First of all, it’s taking place on Sunday, June 30th from 4-6pm, which is the day after my real birthday.
And it’s also special because this year’s cruise will serve as the official kickoff of my campaign for re-election to the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.
Amid the heavy fire he’s taken in recent months about S.B.’s pot explosion, there has been quiet speculation about a possible challenge to his reelection, and some wealthy Montecitans have let it be known that they might easily be persuaded to part with as much cash as it might take to support such a bid.
No one has yet raised their hand and volunteered for the job, although the most gossip has been mongered about two names: Laura Capps, vice president of the S.B. school board, and Joe Cole, former Montecito Planning Commission chair.
Taking out an incumbent Democratic office-holder in California in the current political atmosphere is not a task for the squeamish. But we’ll pay to cover it if anyone wants to try.
WHAT STEVE SAYS: In a telephone interview, Supervisor Lavagnino said he “totally disagrees” with the thrust of the Times story; defended the transparency of the ordinance drafting process, saying “this was not done in the dark” and noting that there were “60 public meetings” held around it; and shrugged off the suggestion that “we were doing the bidding of one side on this.”
“My whole career here, I’ve been looking for new streams of revenue (and) I’m open to any industry that is going to pay taxes,” he said. “I had to meet with the industry because I did not understand the workings of the industry.”
“We’re taking a lot of criticism when we don’t have a finished product yet,” he added, noting that permit elements of the ordinance are still being phased in, and the cannabis landscape could look significantly different in 18 months.
Beyond that, Lavagnino added, “I’ve got a thick skin.”