Delayed Reactions

by Mark Scaramella, March 3, 2010

John McCowen, Mike Sweeney and Ross Liberty were behind Measure B.

Bruce Anderson contributed to this story.

Back in August of 2008 John McCowen urged the Board of Supervisors to go after “criminal, commercial problem growers.”

He was Candidate McCowen then.

He's Supervisor McCowen now.

McCowen rode the pot issue right on into a seat on the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors. A former logistics man for Earth First! belatedly shocked, shocked! that marijuana is prevalent in Mendocino County, McCowen's campaign was devised by former communist Mike Sweeney, also now a neo-pot fighter.

Sweeney began his political life as a Stanford Maoist whose violent cult-like group of middle-class revolutionaries placed bombs around the Bay Area in the late 1960s and early 1970s, also engaging themselves in at least two murders before segueing into the even more infamous SLA. Self-rehabbed from Little Red Book fanaticism to neo-respectability as Mendocino County's top trash bureaucrat, Sweeney, once married to the late Judi Bari in whose bombing he remains the sole viable suspect, lives deep in the suburban hills west of Ukiah, confident of a lushly serene retirement.

Ross Liberty is a priggish second generation Ukiah business owner who claimed he couldn't find reliable minimum wage workers because local labor was off in the hills growing pot. Liberty, Sweeney and McCowen devised the reefer madness strategy that propelled McCowen into a supervisor's seat.

This odd trio would be implausible any place but Mendocino County where, as we often say in this publication, “history starts all over again every day and people are whatever they say they are.”

McCowen, with the reinvented Mike Sweeney at his elbow, rightly read the public's revulsion at large-scale commercial growers. McCowen, Sweeney and Liberty cynically devised Measure B, which placed McCowen as the county's lead pot fighters while it sought to lower the number of medical marijuana plants an individual could legally possess from 25 to 6, and the amount of marijuana one could possess from two pounds to half-a-pound. It did nothing, of course, to beat back the huge grows presided over by criminal syndicates.

McCowen, back in 2008, told the Supervisors that the County’s nuisance ordinance needed a criminal provision like the one he pushed through as a City Councilman in Ukiah for those “who refuse to come into compliance.” He said the civil enforcement process took too long, allowing (small) growers to harvest their crop before any action can be taken against them.

“Lots of people are growing far beyond the bounds of what’s reasonable,” declared McCowen. “If we want to be serious about bringing the bad actors into line we need to devote additional resources to this. I know this is a tough budget year. But I encourage you to find additional funds to give Sheriff Allman the six additional deputies he needs to be effective.”

McCowen said nothing about where those additional funds would be “found.”

The consensus bad actors, of course, are the armed thugs who annually establish themselves on public and private lands deep in the hills with the clever ones established in year-round indoor grows literally everywhere else, including deep in the hills. The real bad actors are not McCowen's Measure B targets: McCowen's targets are small-scale grows by individual property owners trying to supplement their income in a very bad economy.

The six additional deputies McCowen advocated for our broker-by-the-day county would cost upwards of a million dollars a year in salaries, overtime, benefits, pensions, health coverage, outfitting and vehicle costs. Of course, as we all know, even 60 more deputies couldn't get to all the gardens flourishing everywhere in Mendocino County's 3500-plus square miles.

Measure B passed easily, McCowen was elected supervisor with a heavy “liberal” Ukiah vote.

But now, as a sitting Supervisor, McCowen seems to have belatedly discovered that maybe going after the under-25 plant pot growers is costing the County too much.

Addressing Sheriff Allman last week as if the issue were purely theoretical, McCowen, as always infatuated by the sound of his own voice, began, “There’s concern in the community. Sometimes we have low level marijuana offenders, yet technically under the law they're growing one plant, cultivating one plant, and they're not a medical patient, then that would be classed as a felony and they are subject to arrest. And I know we don't have anyone out there looking for one plant or six plants. But sometimes people do get caught up in the system and they… Let's say it's a situation where someone is simply growing marijuana and there might be a question, are they a legitimate patient or are they having a number of plants they shouldn't have, whatever that might be, and even though in some sense a deputy might look at it and say I have reason to believe a felony is being committed, my understanding is that if the deputy believes that a felony is being committed, they do not have the option to cite and release, they must arrest. True or not true?”

Sheriff Allman had been attentively following McCowen's rhetorical bouncing ball.

“What you just said at the close is not correct. You cannot issue a citation for an adult for a felony unless there's a medical issue and you've spoken with a judge…But there are five reasons where arrests would be made, and the deputies have been told this over and over. Commercial marijuana growing in Mendocino County is illegal. People ask what the definition of commercial marijuana is. And the answer is pretty simple; you're growing marijuana for the purpose of profiting and that's how you're supporting yourself. You're a commercial marijuana grower. I don't care if people don't like being called a commercial marijuana grower, but that's what they are. If you're growing on trespass lands, if you're on timberlands or somebody else's property and you're growing marijuana, chances are you're going to be arrested. If you're growing on public property and we find you so public lands you're going to be arrested. If you're growing marijuana by illegally diverting water or stealing water, we're going to arrest you. If you're growing marijuana and you're causing environmental degradation, we're going to arrest you.... If someone grows one marijuana plant I… to be quite honest, I know there will be people cringing at this, but I wouldn't walk across the parking lot to see one marijuana plant because we have so many other things to deal with. But the people who are taking advantage of the situation and are growing 400 marijuana plants, and each plant produces three pounds, and they have 1200 pounds of processed, those are the people that are bringing crime to our area, the people who are attracting the home invasions, they're the people responsible for the increase in violence in Mendocino County..... It's no secret what our strategy is today and our strategy for 2010 marijuana growing is going to be those five marijuana enforcement objectives which I just talked about.”

“Thank you Sheriff Allman,” replied McCowen, stumbling on to what promised to become an endless repetition of the endless Mendocino County pot discussion. “But there's a big gray area when it comes to commercial because the advent of collectives and dispensaries, and the attorney general guidelines, we know that many people are growing marijuana, they've got their patient card, they've joined a collective, and yet they're growing marijuana primarily for the purpose of selling it to someone else. So there's a lot of ambiguity with what's commercial and what's not commercial, so to simply say they're growing it for money, therefore they're a commercial grower, I agree with you, but does that necessarily push them over into the category where they have to be arrested? So I'm not trying to come to any resolution here but it's just something to maybe further consider.”

Allman replied, “Supervisor McCowen, if I heard from this board that you didn't want me to arrest commercial marijuana growers, I would take that back to the deputy sheriffs. But I don't think that's what I've heard from this board in the past or today.”

Never one to jump from a dead horse, McCowen persisted. “I'm saying that the definition of commercial, given the, the attorney general guidelines, the recognition of collectives, the blessing of collectives by Senate Bill 420, uh, that we know is a common practice, that there are many ‘patients’ who are out there growing marijuana, selling it, profiting, and yet in many instances there is a question of whether they are legal or not legal under the very ambiguous laws that we have.”

Allman tried to bring McCowen back to reality.

“I think there are some philosophical reasons and the only good part about this conversation is it's taking us away from a very ugly conversation about the budget. But I'd be happy to talk about this at any other time when time is not of the essence and marijuana is not the main topic.”

Board Chair Carre Brown had heard enough.

“Thank you very much, from the Chair,” said Brown with a laugh.

McCowen had to have the last word.

“And of course, we all look forward to the day when marijuana is not the main topic.”

Brown said: “Amen.”

This kind of aimless back-and-forth is typical of Supervisors meetings nowadays. Does McCowen really understand there's a General Fund budget deficit of at least $3.6 million just for the last four months of this fiscal year (ending in June), and at least $4 million more coming up next fiscal year? Does the Ukiah Droner finally get it that a whole lot of petty pot arrests — encouraged by Measure B — drives up the Sheriff’s budget, the jail budget, the probation budget, the DA’s budget, the juvenile probation budget, the Child Protective Services budget, the pubic defender’s budget, the alternate public defender’s budget, and the private contract defense attorney budget?

Supervisors Pinches and Colfax have expressed similar opinions that maybe pot arrests for minor pot violations are pushing too much of the County’s overall law enforcement expenditures well past available funding. However, they were silent last week.

But the primary reason that the County faces a $3.6 million shortfall for this fiscal year (through June) is due to drops in revenue. Property taxes are off, supplemental property taxes from property sales are down, timber tax is way down, the bed tax is down, court collections are down, as are fees, interest on savings, and other miscellaneous revenues. Plus, more and more people simply can't pay their property taxes.

Overall, the County’s discretionary General Fund revenue is $2.7 million less than projected in the current year’s budget. And that’s only if the state doesn’t hack more from annual reimbursements. Which is unlikely given the dire state of California's public entities.

The Sheriff is projected to be over his budget by $804k even though he’s made some significant reductions in jail expenses, patrol mileage and overtime. Indigent defense costs are up, the auditor is overrunning but not too much, Animal Control has lost some of its projected revenue.

But the rest of last Tuesday’s “budget workshop” was mostly the usual aimless chat.

Although the County’s newly promoted Chief Executive Officer, Carmel Angelo, as requested, had presented the Board with a list of “non-mandated” services in several departments which they could theoretically cut, none of the supervisors could bring themselves to propose more than a symbolic nick here and there, and even these proposed nicks died for a supervisor's second.

One of the big “non-mandated services” is the Alcohol and Other Drugs Program (AODP) operated out of Public Health. When people saw AODP on Angelo’s hit-list of non-mandated programs, however, a parade of testimonials from both staffers and clients was quickly organized, each testifying to the wonders of AODP’s “prevention” efforts and to the higher costs of alternatives such as crime, jail, courts, mental health, etc. if AODP went away.

Several people made convincing cases that they had been rescued from lives of addiction with AODP help. Of course, those who have not been helped are unlikely to shuffle up to the Supervisors’ podium to denounce the program.

So AODP, which has already taken some good sized reductions in previous cutbacks, got a temporary reprieve.

And, as the day wore on, so did everything else.

John McCowen saw libraries as a place to cut a few thousand General Fund subsidy dollars, but nobody agreed with him, especially Supervisor Pinches who adamantly defended the Willits Branch library which might well be the first to go since it's the least patronized in the county.

Other money saving possibilities from the non-mandated services list included: Closing the Coast animal shelter; cutting the Coast Planning and Building Office back to a skeleton crew; firing the remaining trappers, cutting back on computer purchases, consolidating the Museum and the Library, ending the County’s relative small subsidies to other projects and agencies, cutting back veterans services, and so on.

Angelo also listed the various across the board budget cutting methods that might have to be employed: layoffs, wage concessions, mandatory time off, workweek reductions, “restructuring” (departmental consolidations), etc.

But, as Angelo noted, of those, only layoffs can be quickly accomplished in a month or two. The rest require months of planning and meet and confer with the County’s eight (!) bargaining units.

The upshot? The Board again put everything off to the next “budget workshop” on March 22 where, if precedent is any guide, nothing will be decided again.

Board Chair Carre Brown now understands that McCowen's logorrhea, the worst of three cases on this board the other two being Smith and Colfax, must be firmly be suppressed, both for the welfare of the patient and the public good. Take, for instance, this testy exchange between Doctor Brown and the afflicted Supervisor McCowen.

Supervisor Pinches said he didn’t want development standards included in the tax sharing agreement guidelines between the County and the City of Ukiah. “If we put these in here,” said Pinches, “there’s no need to have them in the Ukiah Valley Area Plan.”

McCowen the inevitable.

“Madam chair, may I make a direct response to that one question?”

Chair Brown: “OK, well, we're not going to debate, but… and you wanted everyone else to go first so why don't you go ahead and take your final comment, Mr. McCowen?”

Pinches: “Let's hear what Supervisor Colfax has to say.”

McCowen: “Well, I've got a lot of comments. But that's a very specific question for which there's a specific answer.”

Brown: “You're always right, Supervisor McCowen, so you go forward.” Brown giggled nervously hoping she hadn't triggered another boring blast from McCowen.

McCowen: “The Ukiah Valley Area Plan covers ridgetop to ridgetop,” explained McCowen. “This [tax sharing proposal] only applies to areas which directly adjoin the City limits.”

CEO Angelo mentioned in passing that the County has 14 Department Heads (not counting the five who are elected officials) in the “Department Head bargaining unit,” and 66 managers in the “Manager bargaining unit.” But neither Angelo nor the Board expressed any interest in reducing their numbers or their pay beyond the general comments about all bargaining units. Maybe. Someday.

How two management categories became “bargaining units” remains a mystery. But however and whenever it happened it was a big mistake and should be eliminated. Management staff should be “at will” and subject to lay-off and salary reduction without “bargaining.” If you’re earning the big bucks you take the risk of lay-off because, in theory, you’re in such demand that you can easily find another employer to pay you those big bucks. Management as bargaining units is an oxymoron, if not oxen without morons.

If you add the county’s various “system analysts” and “resource specialists” and everybody else who makes what the Supervisors make ($68k per year plus serious perks) or more, you can count probably 150 or so people making twice to three times what the average private sector person makes. If these managerial aces average $80k per year, which may be low, plus 40% more in benefits, then they cost about $110k per year.

So 150 x $110k = $16,500,000 per year for white collar employees. A 10% white collar employee pay cut of $1.6 million, then, would be the least painful cut that could be made and no parade of the affected would be organized, and it would save money in the short-term. And if you fired 10% of those 150, or a mere 15 of them, you’d save another $1.5 million or so, nearly eliminating the budget deficit for this year and most of next year’s too.

But of course the people talking about what to cut are these same overpaid people.

As Sheriff Allman, who has taken a 10% voluntary salary cut already, pointed out to the Supervisors last week, the County has a current job opening for a permanent Director of Health and Human Services (the position Carmel Angelo left to become Assistant CEO, now filled by Interim Director Suzanna Wilson) at almost $140k per year. “You have to look at that,” said Allman. “Is that the right path? Have we not learned anything? Is that the going rate? I would hope they'd accept a much lower salary.”

There was also the usual vague talk about ballot proposals for additional sales or property taxes. But most of the people in the room last week were quite aware that getting the required two-thirds vote these days, even for an earmarked tax for law enforcement, would be “a challenge.” And even in the remote chance such a new tax was approved, there wouldn’t be any revenue from it for quite a while, certainly not this year, probably not next year.

As it became clear that the Board wasn’t going to do anything but kick the budget can down the road another month, Board Chair Brown observed, “We're slowly sinking, the longer we wait. We have to take this very seriously. We can't just keep putting it off to the future.”

But that’s exactly what the supervisors did.

Supervisor David Colfax tried to justify putting things off until he’s gone from the Board: “In Catch 22 there's a line,” Colfax smiled, “there's a time to act and a time not to act, and this is not one of them. And that's the position we're in right now. … What are we going to do when the catastrophe really hits? The State and the feds will force the issue.”

And Colfax and his colleagues will pretend it's all the fault of people far, far away.

Someone suggested postponing the budget question for just one week. But that idea came a cropper too when Board Clerk Kristi Furman reminded the board that the March 2 agenda is already full with discussions of the Masonite site clean-up, a Department of Agriculture presentation (about a possible slaughterhouse in Mendocino County), and a public hearing on what to do about the pending bankruptcy of the retiree healthcare fund.

It was almost six o’clock so Board Chair Brown gave up. “We're stalemated at this point,” said Brown. “It's probably going to get nasty if we go on further.”

Ms. Brown, always the very picture of grace in a relentlessly graceless context, ended the day’s public session, and the five bumblers trudged into closed session where they presumably focused on forthcoming labor negotiations.

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