During last Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisor Ted Williams asked cannabis program manager Sean Connell if he could produce a monthly graph showing pot permit processing status by permit category. After a silent pause, Williams quickly gave up, probably realizing that county staff is incapable of producing monthly status reports on anything, without even the courtesy of, “No, we can’t.”
Williams then asked if Mendocino County was in the same situation as other counties with something like 75% of the pot permit applications being held up by state agencies.
Mr. Connell replied that "A lot of other counties are experiencing the same effects."
Williams quickly followed up: "A lot? Meaning some counties are not?"
Connell: “Probably there are some. I think Lake County has it pretty easy right now. They have use permits and a controlled water source over there. They have a little bit of a different process. It depends on how the ordinance for each county is set up."
Oops. Mr. Connell inadvertently undermined the party line that it’s the state’s, not the County’s fault. Mendo dismissed the use permit process out of hand years ago, not even considering it. Yet here’s Mendo’s broke stepcounty using it to good effect.
Connell then said he was working with other coastal counties on the pot permit processing problem, whatever that means.
Williams tried another tack. "Is there any possibility of having applicants take photos and send them in electronically rather than sending an inspector out? We know a state inspection will come. Then maybe trust them if they say it's 2500 square feet and it looks like it. Would that save us a whole lot of money? I recall hearing 17 hours to work through the process. I would think that would shave a whole lot of time if we just took their evidence as opposed to going on site.”
Planning & Building Director Brent Schultz didn’t want to address individual suggestions from Supervisors (i.e., Williams): “I would really appreciate it if the board members would —” He probably felt like saying “shut up,” but thought better of it. “I like these ideas. I would like to sit down with Sean [Connell]. We're setting up meetings now to walk through each process our applicants have to go through," and on and on jabbering away about trying to meet the county’s — NOT the state’s — ordinance requirements, "and shave off time." Shultz also said he was open to ideas and wants to hear from applicants, "but nobody's come in with precise things that we can do to shave off the process and still meet our ordnance, and still meet state law. I haven't heard any. I've asked a lot of people. And they have just not come in yet. A few, but not a lot."
Schultz had just heard one! And ignored it! Not a peep in response. Of course the wannabe-legal pot people have proposed very specific ideas for years. We have no idea what Schultz is talking about.
Supervisor John Haschack then bemoaned the slow pace of permit processing, again, concluding, "Why is that number [of approved pernits] so low?"
Instead of blaming the state — what’s wrong with these staffers? Can’t they stay on script? The CEO is sitting right there. — Mr. Schultz blamed lack of staff. “Mr. Connell doesn't have a program administrator. He doesn't have administrative staff. And he lost three inspectors. We are down 70%. There is a turnover issue. Human Resources has stepped in and we are starting to fill those positions back up." Schultz also insisted that he was “trying [sic] to pare down the whole application process."
Williams: "I hear from a lot of people about cannabis. I see how hard staff is working. If anybody can pull it off it would be these two. But there is an inherent problem. It may be the state and I think we need to address that at some point. Maybe legal action to start a revolt. It's just meeting after meeting looking at the same numbers and people saying they need more time to investigate and find efficiencies. But this thing has just stalled. The public tells me that this program is a failure and I tend to agree. You have one out of five up here thinking this program just does not work. I want to find next steps. If it means going to the state and showing them it doesn't work and how hard staff is working around the clock to pull this off and applicants are doing everything they should be doing and you [state agencies] are putting us out of business. I think we need to do that. Otherwise we might as well say let's not hear the numbers until August. It has stalled. It's basically capitulation. Staff is working hard and they are busy. But it's painful for the small farmer who can't pay his bills, can't buy gas, can't buy food because the state has stalled. And maybe there are 25% that are stalled on us and we have to move on those. That hurts people and that's on us. But we have to have some next steps and it cannot be looking at staff and asking them to work harder and fix it faster. They are doing what they can. There has to be some action between us and the state."
Supervisor John McCowen returned to the script, noting that upwards of three quarters of the applications are at one state agency or another. "I've been asking for a quantification of that specific number for some time and that appears to be difficult to pull that up.”
If no one demands it, more whining is not likely to get it “pulled up.”
McCowen: “However 70-75%, 600 some applications, appear to be sitting somewhere at the state, so I certainly agree these numbers are not moving. The problem isn't getting resolved as it relates to the state. There's very limited value to having these regular updates.” McCowen then suggested the Board just "dispense with the updates," and let staff report when they feel like it.
The Board agreed to dispense with the updates -- obviously, everyone's embarrassed by the nearly invisible progress and nobody has the slightest idea what to do about it and they don’t like hearing about it month after month and listening to the pot people — and Supervisor Williams — complain. It looks bad. Better to simply not report on it or discuss much.
In spite of Supervisor McCowen's repeated attempts to place as much blame as possible on the state, it's clear, as Mr. Connell noted, that some counties have simpler processes. It's also clear that nobody in Mendo Officialdom is willing to pursue even the slightest specific process improvements such as using cameras as supervisor Williams suggested. They have been blathering about “trying” to improve the process for years without a single specific change other than aimlessly shifting the program from one department to another and shifting the person(s) in charge of it. And adding more requirements.
Supervisor Williams tried to pin down where at the state the applications are being held up.
Supervisor Carre Brown dismissed this question with her standard giggle, adding, "It's water, fish and game…” tee-hee — whatever, not us.
Mr. Shultz said it's mainly Fish and Wildlife.
Supervisor Williams then asked County Counsel, “Is there's any way to bring Fish and Wildlife into court on this? It's ruining our economy. It's trickling down into all other businesses. Can we get their attention? This is unacceptable month after month to have applications essentially blocked by inaction.”
Carre Brown: "Actually, I think, maybe -- a letter to the Director, the California Director of Fish and Wildlife?”
Williams agreed with a letter but wanted to know if the County could get Fish and Wildlife into court “because they are putting our local economy under.”
Of course, Supervisor McCowen immediately quashed that idea: "It's very difficult to sue government for what they don't do. I don't think that's a viable avenue."
Actually, it is an option. It’s called a Writ of Mandamus. (“…a traditional remedy by which a court compels an inferior tribunal to perform a legally required duty. The authorizing statute is CCP §1085.”) It might not work in the end, but it would sure get the state’s and the public’s attention. The problem would be proving that the State is the problem, not the County.
McCowen continued, "I would leave it to staff, working with County Counsel, to come back to the board at the point where they think a letter or other approach to state officials is appropriate. I would trust their judgment to work through these issues and reach out to us if there is a role for us to play."
Williams was adamant: “We are beyond that point. This has gone on too long. The public has no confidence at this point in our cannabis program. People look at it and think, It's not going anywhere. I don't think we can plead for anything anymore. I think we need to take action. We just need to decide what that action is. To expect that we will push this back until August or later — I think we are going to see these 1339 applications not processed in any meaningful way. We will come back in three months and hear that nine more have made it through the process and the rest are blocked somewhere at the state and we are not sure, maybe Fish and Wildlife… I can't support that. I think we have to take some action. Maybe the five of us have to get in a car and go to the Capitol and protest.”
Everybody in the room laughed at Williams who was not joking at all.
“I'm serious!” replied Williams. “It's not just about cannabis. Dollars are leaving the county. Talk to the local bars. They are saying that people aren’t coming in anymore. Talk to car repair shops. People are not showing up to fix their cars. It's trickling down everywhere. It seems that cannabis people are the only ones who can come to our meetings, but they’re not the only ones affected. I would like other supervisors to propose next steps. I do not think the next step is waiting.”
County Counsel Kit Elliott’s contribution to the discussion was a stream of meaningless acronyms and excuses: "The problem is that all throughout this we have been working with CDFA, CDFW, the state. It's a frustration being addressed through RCRC. I think CSAC's been involved. A lot of different agencies."
There was a long series of very focused complaints, suggestions and questions from the regular cannabis community speakers, after which Supervisor Williams perked up again: "I heard one of the commenters describe an ability of the County to issue permits while applicants are waiting for the state."
Local cannabis attorney Hannah Nelson suggested giving provisional permits.
Williams then asked staff if that was possible.
Guess what they replied.
Program Manager Sean Connell: "Unfortunately, County Code Section 10.8.17 requires the final document from Fish and Wildlife be in receipt from their department and be checked and verified for validity before we can issue a permit. So we don't have that ability to take their receipt of application at Fish and Wildlife and issue a permit based on that. But when an application is filed, we issue an embossed receipt which is a provisional license which allows that cultivator to begin cultivation."
“Begin cultivation”? What then? In other words, Pay the fees, pay the consultants, set up the grow, get started and then wait forever before you can sell anything.
After several more local growers rattled off their plaintive complaints about processing, demands from state agencies, taxes and fees, being out of money, lack of transferability of permits, and so on, Board Chair Carre Brown dismissively thanked everyone and said the board would be moving on to the CEO’s report.
On Tuesday, the cannabis "ad hoc committee" is expected to make a report with suggested improvements to the process. But based on Tuesday's discussion, the improvements will take a lot longer than the permits.
AFTER THE MEETING Pot Permit Program Manager Sean Connell could be seen acting like he was telling his former assistant Chevon Holmes that he not only got through another meeting without having to answer any hard questions, but the Supes even told him he didn’t have to report the dismal stats anymore! Perhaps saying, “I don’t know why, and you won’t believe this, Chevon, but that’s what they did!”
SUPERVISOR TED WILLIAMS has placed the following interesting item on Tuesday’s Supes agenda. We’re not sure what the background of this item is, but as far as we know the Ag Department already collects pesticide application data, so Williams is suggesting that it also be published on line, which would be a useful improvement and a step toward timeliness and better transparency. And it would give neighbors notice of spraying and what’s being sprayed (and dates, since the application data already includes application date). It will be interesting to see how Williams’s Board colleagues react to this simple proposal.
ITEM 6a) — Discussion and Possible Action Including Direction to Agriculture Department to Collect and Publish Pesticide Application Details, Including Chemical Agent, Quantity, and Assessor’s Parcel Number (Sponsor: Supervisor Williams)
Recommended Action: Direct Agricultural Commissioner to collect pesticide application details, including chemical agent, quantity and accessor parcel number (APN); and publish via County website within fifteen days of receipt.