First, I want to offer a shout-out of gratitude to our local media and civic organizations for a series of public debates between 1st District county supervisor candidates Das Williams and Laura Capps. It’s great to see a responsible and independent Fourth Estate performing its civic duty in greater Santa Barbara. I want to especially thank journalist Jerry Roberts for posting his interview with the two online.
I’ve discerned that Supervisor Williams’s advocates want to talk about everything but the “giant spliff” in the room. Marijuana, with its law enforcement, economic, scientific, cultural, and social effects, has seemingly overtaken Santa Barbara County in just two years. Instead of addressing this, Williams’s advocates want us to focus on his image as an experienced incumbent with a long record of accomplishments, and to regard Laura Capps as a newcomer without experience who might not even be a serious candidate. However, an examination of the factual record, particularly the incumbent’s record since the cannabis sativa behemoth blew in, belies this scenario.
Both the incumbent and the challenger are experienced public servants who grew up steeped in local politics. One gained experience over 17 years in the rough-and-tumble of city, state, and county offices. The other practically had progressive politics served nightly on her dinner plate, received a top education at Berkeley and at the London School of Economics, and finally spent a decade crafting legislation at the highest levels of the federal government, in both the executive and legislative branches.
My opinion is that the consequential, salient issue on which this election should be decided is integrity and ethics. While Williams deserves the gratitude of Santa Barbara County residents for his constituent service in the post-mudslide recovery, we should not turn a blind eye to his record on the pot industry, fueled by his acceptance of more than $60,000 in that industry’s contributions.
In my analysis, the incumbency cannot be argued both ways: It’s disingenuous to claim that one possesses a superior level of legislative experience on the one hand, while on the other hand giving oneself a hall pass for naïveté in opening the regulatory door wide for California’s marijuana millionaires. Our beloved county, renowned for the heady Mediterranean-influenced scents of floriculture, viticulture, and pomology — luring seven million visitors per annum — has been hit by two stronger scents. One comes from the stinky terpene chemical odors in Carpinteria and along State Route 246 during the weed-drying process; the other comes from the stench of public corruption brought about by catering to special-interest lobbyists.
Williams and fellow “Doobie Brother” Supervisor Steve Lavagnino’s circumvention of the state’s Brown Act governing open meetings, by forming a two-supervisor, non-transparent committee in 2017, then working with pot lobbyists to craft a lax ordinance, is now well documented, thanks to two long investigative stories by the Los Angeles Times and the work of industrious local reporters. These supervisors’ gaffes have made Santa Barbara County a national case study in how not to introduce, manage, tax, and regulate cannabis sativa.
Stories such as “Flower Town Grapples with Pot Industry’s Stench” from the Associated Press are echoing round the world and could in future alter our county’s image as a wholesome and healthy mecca for beachgoers, mountain climbers, and especially families. Homeowners’ property values near pot-growing operations could also be at stake.
Why couldn’t our supervisors follow the lead of Ventura County, which bans commercial cannabis cultivation but is earning tax revenue from its 4,000 acres permitted to grow industrial hemp?
“Unlike most counties, we rushed in. We didn’t do due diligence. There was no economic impact study on the wine industry … the avocado industry,” Capps told Roberts. “There was no science yet to say that kind of exposure to children, and to adults for that matter, is okay.”
Supervisors Williams and Lavagnino promised to limit pot farms to just 10,000 square feet, but instead we ended up with loopholes allowing growers to purchase and “stack” multiple licenses to create giant pot plantations. Parents and school leaders in Carpinteria are dismayed at having pot farms in uncomfortable proximity to Carpinteria High, the Howard School, the Boys and Girls Clubs, and the historic 1910 Cate School. Pot farms are so close to traditional Santa Barbara agriculture that avocado and citrus growers, who must use certain pesticides on their crops, are worried about potential lawsuits from nearby pot purveyors. And given the enormous size of our county’s new pot industry, financial watchdogs have been calling for investigations into why comparatively little tax money has flowed into county coffers.
Up county, my friends Blair and Dianne Pence, who grow award-winning pinot noir and other varietals in the Sta. Rita Hills viticultural area, have been fighting “cannagribusiness” through the County Planning Commission appeals process, successfully persuading commissioners to deny a 73-acre operation next door and to scale back another’s 37 acres to 12.5. But this temporary measure is likely to be appealed and could be overridden by — guess who — the supervisors.
To his credit, Williams has been making the argument that tax and other revenues from pot growing is the only thing that will save public schools in struggling communities such as Carpinteria, where he lives. He noted in the Newsmakers interview: “I’ve done an analysis of the very property taxes in Carpinteria that are growing marijuana, and their property tax before 2016 was anemic, flat. And then between 2016 and 2018 it went up 18 percent. And just last year went up 20 percent.”
Residents clearly want this industry to be regulated. Six months ago, it was widely reported that farms in our county held 35 percent of all California marijuana cultivation licenses issued in 2019, despite our small size representing just 1.8 percent of the state’s land. This month, the County Planning Commission began hearings on the subject, with a wide range of residents asking for restricting the size and types of cannabis operations, tightening the permitting process, requiring odor control, and establishing more reasonable setbacks and buffers — safeguards that many believe should have been part of the original ordinance.
In my opinion, the prudent way to face this powerful and highly controversial industry is to elect Laura Capps and support her five-element campaign finance reform package, including: a ban on contributions from industries with business before the supervisors; limits on both campaign contributions and candidate spending; an ethics commission; and greater transparency on campaign donations. Voting for Laura Capps, a candidate unconnected to the cannabis industry, would help send a signal to the rest of the supervisors that Santa Barbara County residents will not tolerate cozy relationships with lobbyists. We need public officials who possess the ethical chops to weigh special interests’ wish lists against more important criteria, the public interest and the commonweal.