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What Do Supervisors Get from the Cannabis Industry?

Cannabis | Credit: Paul Wellman

The legalization of marijuana has created a tidal wave of controversy about the ordinance Santa Barbara County has been writing to regulate the industry. Among the complaints about the ordinance — that it is too difficult or too lenient, depending on who is complaining — has come a scrutiny of campaign contributions from the cannabis industry to county supervisors while the ordinance was being written. In particular, critics of the ordinance point to a Los Angeles Times article that identified $16,500 to Supervisor Das Williams from cannabis growers. 

Did no other supervisors receive contributions, and if they did, must they recuse themselves from voting on the ordinance? The Independent reviewed the sitting supervisors’ campaign records, attempting to weed out cannabis proponents and opponents who made contributions of $1,000 or more in 2017-18.

A public record of contributions and distributions is mandatory for political campaigns in California. Santa Barbara County’s records show that the same growers who donated to Williams sent $12,000 to Supervisor Joan Hartmann of the Santa Ynez Valley in 2017 and $16,000 to Supervisor Steve Lavagnino of Santa Maria in 2018. Hartmann and Lavagnino received no such money in other years. The total amount for Williams is closer to $23,000 in 2017-18, and it came from not only cannabis growers and greenhouse owners but also a cannabis lobbyist, investor, hydroponics group, testing lab, and attorneys. It represented about 17 percent of his $127,000 total raised in those two years.

The percentage of Hartmann and Lavagnino’s money from cannabis concerns was about 12 percent for each. The campaign finance records show the contributions came in clumps, which campaign staffers for both supervisors said coincided with large fundraising events. Hartmann received her cannabis money in one week of October 2017, which, according to the county’s online ordinance timeline, is when the cannabis affidavit to verify a preexisting grow was being devised. Lavagnino’s clump arrived on February 20, 2018, around when cannabis land-use changes were ongoing.

Williams said his 2016 supervisor race netted about 4.5 percent from cannabis interests, and about 2 percent from people now opposed to the current ordinance. He stated the 2017-18 donations from opponents were much less, and the Independent‘s review finds no major (over $1,000) anti-cannabis donor. Hartmann was the only sitting supervisor supported by an outspoken cannabis foe; she received $1,000 from Sharyne Merritt, an avocado grower in Carpinteria and Santa Ynez Valley.

The Carpinteria giving contingent was led by the Van Wingerden family, who wrote checks totaling $18,000 to the three supervisors. Their multigenerational cut-flower greenhouse business had been sinking over the decade under the takeover of the industry by Colombian growers; cannabis has been a boon for them. Other CARP (Cannabis Association for Responsible Producers) members gave $14,000 to the supervisors, with $6,000 coming from Barry Brand and $8,000 from Michael Palmer. Graham Farrar’s hydroponics partner Kelly Clenet gave $6,000 to Williams in recent years.

Cannabis opponents argue that Williams should recuse himself from cannabis votes because of the contributions he received. A look at the sitting supervisors’ campaign donors shows that little legislation would occur in the county if that opinion held. The 2017-18 campaign finance information reflects large contributions — those of $1,000 or more — from North County agriculture, unions (including fire, deputy sheriffs, and service employees), real estate and land use, waste management, hotels, farmers’ markets, environmentalists, and retirees. 

The Independent‘s tally of records for 2017 and 2018 showed no cannabis money to Supervisor Peter Adam, who will step down in 2020. Former supervisor Janet Wolf, who retired in 2018, reported $150 from the American Academy of Cannabinoid Medicine and $1,000 from Sharyne Merritt. Among former supervisors in office during the 2016 cannabis legislative work, Salud Carbajal and Doreen Farr, neither reported cannabis money that year.

Correction: Though a review of county records showed no cannabis money to Supervisor Gregg Hart, as originally reported, on a tip from a member of the political community, a look at his run for reelection to Santa Barbara City Council in 2017 listed contributions. That supervisor Wolf would step down was rumored long before she announced it in November 2017, and Hart was equally rumored to be considering a run for 2nd District; he announced in February 2018. In 2017, his council campaign got about $10,000 from CARP growers and a consultant out of a war chest of about $187,000; he received none in 2018.

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