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County Notes: Busy Doing Nada

Independent Coast Observer reporter Susan Wolbarst saved everybody a lot of time and trouble last week by summarizing last Tuesday's painfully long Board of Supervisors discussion of the County's cannabis permit and equity grant programs as “Mendo Supes Marathon Meeting Accomplishes Nothing For Cannabis Growers.” 

“Cannabis growers who attended Tuesday's 10-hour plus meeting walked away disheartened,” reported Wolbarst. “The 12 recommendations assembled by the ad hoc committee of Supervisors Glenn McGourty and John Haschak and stakeholders [i.e., pot permit applicants] over the course of a year were debated and amended. Many were kicked down the road to the general Government Committee for future discussion.”

Supervisor McGourty insisted that his Cannabis ad hoc committee and staff didn’t just “work hard” on their reform proposals. Oh no. They “worked really really hard.” 

Supervisor Haschak said that his ad hoc “tried” to “work” to “understand all the issues” for “all the people” to give them “an opportunity” to get a license via a “collaboration” with the “cannabis community” for “shovel ready projects.” 

But for all their really, really hard work, they didn’t change a thing, and postponed further discussion of a couple of the minor proposals to the November 3 meeting.

McGourty wrapped up the long, tedious, and ultimately pointless discussion by pretending (again) that talking about the problem but doing nothing amounts to some kind of big accomplishment. “As difficult as this process has been, at least we had a conversation,” sighed McGourty, adding, “we turned around ideas. … I realize a lot of it isn’t going to move forward, but a lot of it will” — a seeming contradiction in terms — without saying which of the “a lot of it” will “move forward,” or when, or if at all, for that matter. If you believe that “a lot of it” will “move forward,” I’ve got a $20.5 million Psychiatric Health Facility over on Whitmore Lane that will open before any, much less “a lot of,” pot permit reform occurs.

McGourty then twisted the knife a final time with some patently demeaning blather at the very end of the meeting, dismissively shrugging off the pot growers complaints because “some of the problems” they are having are “just the normal cycle of agricultural commodities and how things work,” failing to acknowledge in the slightest his Board’s pathetic dithering and their entirely unworkable permit program. “If all we had to deal with was the normal ag cycle,” said an exasperated pot grower later, “we wouldn’t have shown up for that useless meeting.”

In fact, if McGourty and his fellow grape growers (which they always refer to as “agriculture” knowing that it’s not) had to suffer what the County subjects legal pot growers to, they’d be out of business in a year. 

Local Attorney Accuses County Counsel Of Legal Malpractice

Agenda Item 4f on Tuesday’s Supervisors agenda: “Discussion and Possible Action Including Direction to Staff to Limit Cannabis Equity Program(s) to Legitimate Governmental Purposes, Including Environmental Remediation, Encouragement of Regulatory Compliance, Mitigation of Negative Impacts of Existing Industry and Void Any Program Elements Found to be Impermissible Under Federal Law. (Sponsor: Supervisor Williams) … Recommended Action/Motion: Direct staff to limit Cannabis Equity Program(s) to legitimate governmental purposes, including environmental remediation, encouragement of regulatory compliance, mitigation of negative impacts of existing industry and void any program elements found to be impermissible under Federal Law.”

Translation: Seeing that the County’s finances might be precarious, Supervisor Williams and County Counsel Curtis want to keep all the state’s equity grant money for themselves on bogus grounds that marijuana is still illegal under federal law and handing it out to pot growers in accordance with state law might be illegal. 

This is the same Supervisor Williams who agreed with Supervisor Gjerde that business as usual (no new money for fire protection) is compliant with the Pot Tax Advisory measure’s call for “increased fire protection,” and who agreed with the Board’s Grand Jury response that business as usual constitutes “indirect” spending on substance abuse services as called for in Measure B when no Measure B money has been spent on substance abuse services. Williams also insists that although the latest Measure P “essential services” sales tax measure will go into the County’s General Fund where he and his colleagues can do what they want with it, the public is supposed to believe that it will go to fire services according to a complex allocation formula.

In other words, Supervisor Williams is very clever at weasel wording if he thinks it’ll help the County’s bottom line.

A parade of at least a dozen righteously aggrieved cannabis permit applicants came to the podium on Tuesday to complain that the agenda item would shift the “equity grant” money to the county itself, not to the people that the equity grant program was intended to help: pot growers who could demonstrate that they had been harmed by the “war on drugs.” Some of them even wept as they spoke about the dire economic conditions they now find themselves in, having spent tens of thousands of dollars for permit requirements, and consultants and lawyers and property-improvements — only to watch the entire pot economy collapse while the pot bureaucracy expands.

Supervisor John Haschak: “County Counsel, do you believe that any of the equity grants that we have already given out are breaking federal law?”

County Counsel Christian Curtis: “I don't have enough knowledge on the specifics of the grants that did go out. I think there's a decent possibility.”

Haschak: “So for the last two years we have been working on this program and we are two years into it and all of a sudden we get this agenda item that says, Hey, you guys might be breaking federal law and so get your orange jumpsuits ready? Do you mean that we might find out that we might be going to jail with Nicole Elliott and the whole DCC [Nicole Elliott is California’s Director of the Department of Cannabis Control] and every other jurisdiction in this state that has equity grants? Is that where we are going on this? I just don't see it. It's just beyond me.”

Long-time Local Cannabis Attorney Hannah Nelson was even more blunt: 

“If the feds want to be involved in this they will step in. This is an issue without a problem! Okay? It's been decided by the courts, by the annual budget. This item is so far beyond the scope and in my opinion — and I respect County Counsel Curtis — but this is legal malpractice to not have raised this issue if it was a concern, when your [Curtis’s] office has reviewed every single equity grant contract. In fact, a lot of the bottlenecks and a lot of the delays are because everything was being reviewed by your office and new issues kept coming up all of a sudden. I'm sorry I'm raising my voice. I'm very upset. I may actually file legal action about this.”

In the end, all four of Supervisor Haschak's church-mice colleagues — including especially Supervisor Williams who brought the silly item forward, trembling in their nice comfortable chairs — voted to have County Counsel Curtis pay an expensive outside private attorney to give the board advice about the federal legality of the cannabis equity grants and whether or not they amount to some kind of conspiracy to violate federal law, even though for two years grants have been in the pipeline or handed out to pot growers in accordance with state law as Ms. Nelson and Supervisor Haschak noted. Mr. Curtis, the most highly paid public attorney in Mendocino County after being given a giant raise last year in a process he himself approved which blatantly violated the Brown Act, and who has been deeply involved in all of this cannabis legalization crap for years, told the Board that he just didn’t have the necessary expertise to advise the Board on the federal law question.

Meanwhile, the equity grants will continue being processed. However, whether Mr. Curtis will approve them, or drag his feet, or sit on them, or nitpick them, or discover one more problem, while a legal opinion is sought and/or provided, some day, was not discussed. 

PS. Nobody thought to ask the State Attorney General or the Legislature’s Legislative Counsel Office, both of which presumably vetted the state’s equity grant program in the first place, for a legal opinion – at no cost to the County.

* * *

Supervisor Ted Williams responded on Facebook:

Williams: “The motivation isn't for the county to ‘keep’ money or halt the equity program. It's possible for the equity program to not place the county in a role of violating federal law. There is a legitimate governmental role in regulatory programs. Crossing that line has potential to open a can of worms, for example, imagine someone on staff having angst over being directed to violate federal law. I would hope that all of the existing grant applications are permissible under federal law, but if not, I don't believe it would materially alter allocations. Issuing government dollars for a cultivator to buy clones is clearly over the line, but covering expenses related to culverts, security, fencing, environmental reports, compliant energy transitions and all of the other expenses related to gaining a state license are compatible.”

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