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Supes Approve the Impossible

Item 6b on last Tuesday’s Supervisors Agenda was one of the most convoluted items we’ve ever seen on any Mendo Board meeting agenda: “Discussion and Possible Action Including Direction to Staff on Cannabis Cultivation Permitting Priorities Including, but Not Limited to: County Counsel Analysis of State CEQA request, Digital Portal, Cost Recovery for Work Outside of Application Scope, Interagency Biologist Agreement, Publication of Cannabis Cultivation Guide, Plan for Staffing Increase or Consultant Request for Proposal (RFP), Equity Grant Program Update, Notices to Correct Applications, Request Provisional License Extension from California Department of Food and Agriculture, and Schedule Special Board of Supervisors Meeting for Cannabis Cultivation Phase 3 Zoning Table and Permitting Model (Sponsor: Cannabis Ad Hoc Committee (Supervisors Haschak and Williams)).”

The item continued with “Recommended Action/Motion.”

“Direct County Counsel to opine on whether County has already met the requirements of CEQA in regards to Cannabis Cultivation permitting. And whether State’s demand for “Appendix G” is a legally supported county obligation and report back within 30 days; 2) Direct the Executive Office and Planning and Building Services to engage with Information Technology consultant to develop a fully digital submission portal capable of instantaneously generating accurate status reports for staff, applicants and the public; 3) Direct Planning and Building Services to implement cost recovery for staff time allocated to cannabis cultivation development discussions beyond existing application scope; 4) Direct Planning and Building Services to engage in an interagency agreement with California Department of Fish and Wildlife for a biologist to assist with Sensitive Species and Habitat Review; 5) Direct Planning and Building to publish and maintain a Cannabis Cultivation Guide, including flow chart on website; 6) Direct Planning and Building Services to develop a staffing plan to complete processing of Cannabis Cultivation applications within six months or an RFP for outside contractor if county lacks feasibility to perform; 7) Direct Cannabis Program Manager to prepare Equity Grant Program plan presentation; 8) Direct Planning and Building to generate Notices of Correction and establish processing priorities; 9) Direct Executive Office to add Provisional License extension to legislative platform and Direct ad-hoc to engage with RCRC [Rural Counties Representatives of California], Assemblymember Wood and Senator McGuire for support; and 10) Direct staff to schedule Special Board of Supervisors Meeting for Cannabis Cultivation Phase 3 Zoning Table and Permitting Model.”

When we last addressed this agenda item we concluded, “Never happen. Nothing can be done. The program can't be repaired and is doomed. (Note that the item does NOT request an estimated cost of the many proposals mentioned or who would pay for it/them.)”

In a follow-up item Supervisor Ted Williams who, like his four colleagues on Tuesday, supported this preposterous and unworkable “solution,” later commented, “Solutions are simple [sic]. Determine how much time is needed to process applications and staff appropriately…”

To which we replied, “…the agenda item does NOT request an estimated cost of the many proposals mentioned or who would pay for it/them.”

Williams then added, “Applicants, I would presume. 30k+ hours of contract planners will run in the millions. If applicants don’t pay and the county cannot, let’s affirm our intention to pull the plug, but please, can we be realistic? A permitting process without staffing is like firefighting without firefighters.”

In fact, in a background note to Tuesday’s garbled Agenda item, Williams specifically addressed what he expects for Cost Recovery:

“Cost Recovery: Cannabis Cultivation application fees were derived from an estimate of 6 hour overall processing time. Actual staff time could be an order of magnitude greater. While maintaining commitment to applicants no matter how erroneous the fee basis now appears, staff time outside of the application processing should not be subsidized. Planning and Building Services should propose an appropriate hourly fee, holding a fee hearing if necessary, to recover costs involved in cannabis cultivation site development discussions. A handful of applicants with unusually difficult or complex situations have occupied staff time, hindering the processing pipeline for other applicants.”

Toward the end of the discussion, just before the unanimous vote, Supervisor John McCowen said, “We know we have these 800 [882 actually] applications. My information has always been that many of these applications will not succeed in the current process. Maybe if we can iron out the issues with the state agencies, that may be resolved except for those that are fatally flawed for some other reason and those will be weeded out through the correction letters. But even if we get all of Phase 1 through the current system we are still left with the issue of Phase 3. We know there are many potential applicants who would like to apply for Phase 3. The Board had previously decided that any Phase 3 applications would involve a land use permit process which itself takes time. So you walk in the door; here’s my completed application. It can take months, a year maybe, long. So we need to get that Phase 3 land use permit process in place. That can’t happen until the Board gives clear direction to staff. So I fully support having a meeting to do that as soon as possible.” 

McCowen went on to say the Board needed to meet more often “if we’re going to be able to accomplish the amount of work we need to accomplish [sic]. Things that tie into that are the concept of expansion and expansion zones. Although the Board was not necessarily unified [in allowing expansion of pot grows], I believe the Board previously has given support to the idea of expansion within certain parameters and of course with a full public process, use permits and innovation zones.”

There’s already a large number of Mendolanders, including the smaller, currently temporarily permitted pot growers, who are being asked to finance much of the seemingly impossible Phase 1 salvage operation after already paying through the nose for their permits (most of which are still in limbo), who oppose any “expansion” of pot growing in Mendocino. There’s another large bloc of Mendo’s non-growers who oppose any expansion for a host of other reasons.

Williams’ “Cost Recovery” idea effectively blames the current permit applicants for the permit program mess the County itself, mainly Supervisor McCowen, created. To expect the permit applicants to now pony up millions more to finance their own application processing is ridiculous on its face, and by itself makes this entire approach unworkable. 

So, despite the Board’s unanimous approval last Tuesday we stand by our original “never happen” assessment.

In effect, Tuesday’s decision is an ill-considered split approach which, on the one hand expects the current applicants pay to the County to salvage their own long pending permits, then switch to a zoning-use permit approach sometime after that. This probably explains the unanimous support on Tuesday since it combines two highly unlikely “solutions” — salvage the current system then switch to a zoning/use-permit system later — to satisfy both the reform-later faction of McCowen and Williams, and the stick-with-the-current-mess faction (Haschak, Brown and Gjerde) on the Board. 

The Board is doubling down on the existing failed program by asking hundreds of pre-paid applicants to pony up the millions of dollars Williams estimates are required just to try to deal with those pending applications — some of which won’t even be approved. Then they’ll blindly move into Phase 3 on a tight state-imposed deadline in hopes that McCowen’s fantasy that the “many potential applicants who would like to apply for Phase 3” will magically appear from out of the hinterlands, checkbooks in hand, and undertake an as-yet undefined zoning- use-permit approach which McCowen and Williams obviously prefer.

The Board set Tuesday, October 13 for a special follow-up meeting to deal with the impossible tasks they unanimously voted for last Tuesday. But it will be a while after that before the current applicants find out how much they’ll be asked to contribute for the euphemistic “cost recovery.”

The whole fiasco reminds me of Aesop’s “The Fox & The Grapes” fable where a fox tries to grab some wonderful-looking grapes from a vine that is too high for the fox to reach. After jumping and jumping and jumping with nary a grape, rather than admit defeat the fox declares them inedible and departs. In the Mendo version, the fox, still in search of grapes somewhere — he was told they’d bring him riches beyond imagining — then wanders off in search of grapes in the forest where there are no grapes at all. 

Supes Buy Ukiah Motel

After hearing complaints from several neighbors of the Best Western Motel in Ukiah, the Board announced out of closed session Tuesday that they approved spending just over $10.6 million of state “homekey” money for the Best Western Motel a couple of doors down from the Schraeder’s offices on Dora Street. The neighbors had complained that the project would attract undesirables to the neighborhood, that it didn’t get enough public review, that there was no plan to operate, maintain and oversee the project, that a neighboring County-managed facility mental health (Willow Terrace) was already creating a vagrancy problem, that it was “an overpriced solution,” that there are a number of neighboring operations including a daycare center, a pre-school, businesses, government offices nearby that would be negatively affected, etc. 

Reportedly there are 56 300 square-foot (e.g., 10 x 30) “units” in the Best Western plus one “apartment,” presumably for the manager(s). So $10.6 million divided by 57 translates to about $$180-$190k per room, much more than, say, a trailer park with 57 trailers — an approach nobody ever talks about. The County expects to house about 70 people there when the remodeling (e.g., mini-kitchens) and arrangements are complete by the first quarter of 2021. 

After the Board’s unanimous approval, Supervisor McCowen replied that the project did need to be thought through to mitigate potential conflicts — in the future. McCowen added that the state had imposed a short deadline on the funds and that they had an independent appraisal of the property supporting the exorbitant purchase price and that no general fund money will be spent on it. “This will be housing for homeless people already receiving services to help them get stabilized and their lives back on track,” said McCowen. “It isn’t going to change who’s here, but will provide housing for people already receiving services.” Health and Human Services staffer Megan van Sant said that the project “is not a homeless shelter. Not a Willow Terrace. It is not free housing. Residents are expected to pay 30% of their income for rent. It will not solve the homeless problem,” adding that she expects veterans, families with children, seniors, mentally ill, people fleeing domestic violence, people with difficult medical issues, and people under the care of adult protective services to be the primary residents. “These are people who have case managers and services,” insisted Van Sant, adding, “it is in line with the Marbut report and county’s homeless strategic plan. I understand the neighbor concerns. But there was not enough time for public involvement. These are vulnerable people who need it.”

Board Chair Haschak concluded that State Senator Mike McGuire plans to hold virtual town hall meeting on the project — after the fact — at an unspecified future date. “I hope to get more info out about that,” Haschak said.

OH-OH. At last Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, County Budget maven Darci Antle gave one of the briefest and least informative presentations we’ve ever seen. After noting that about 76,000 staff hours have been spent on covid response, she quickly shifted to non-budget items, saying that the County has arranged for covid testing with a couple of testing outfits without mentioning the cost, the continuation of food and meal distributions, and added that only four “at risk” people are still in covid-paid motel rooms. “And at this point that would end my report for today,” Antle abruptly concluded. Not one budget number, not one mention of reimbursements, nor when they are expected or in what amounts, nothing about overtime hours… Conclusion: Ms.Antle has been told to keep bad budget news to herself ever since her statement a month ago that the covid budget numbers were “sobering” because of the likely exclusion of some County expenditures from being reimbursable compared to the escalating expenses. Further, not one Supervisor expressed any interest in the budget report or the numbers or the extreme brevity of Ms. Antle’s report. CEO Angelo has probably made it clear that any blurting of budget negativity will be frowned on, even though the budget is probably the single most important issue the Board and the County should be dealing with. PS. We are not out of the first budget quarter yet and already the Sheriff has had to use significant overtime on several high-profile crimes. And nobody seems worried about it.

At last Tuesday’s Supervisors meeting, Supervisor John McCowen tried to get the County’s Covid staffers to focus on known Hispanic covid hotspots in Ukiah — statistics show that a majority of cases are Ukiah area Hispanics in non-work situations — by, for example, putting up notices on apartment doors and trailers in trailer parks about how to stay safe. But McCowen got nowhere. HHSA manager Bekkie Emery quickly argued that the “hotspots” have “shifted and changed and there’s no specific area or location.” “It’s not as clear or easy as you may think,” Emery claimed, adding, irrelevantly, “Addresses are confidential. There’s no one neighborhood. We are watching and evaluating, but there’s no overlay like the one you are indicating.” McCowen didn’t agree, saying, “That’s inconsistent with the information I have,” then gave up with a “but whatever.” Even if “there’s no specific area” (of course there are areas in Ukiah that have significant concentrations of Hispanic residents that could and should be focused on given the stats), what would be wrong with doing what McCowen proposed anyway by providing simple notices in any areas that might be or become hotspots? Unfortunately, none of McCowen’s colleagues felt like following up either. Just another example of how useless and ineffectual our well-paid supervisors are — even when they make the slightest inquiry or request, if staff doesn’t agree — “oh well, whatever!” Staff will do whatever they want to do and that’s the end of that. 

Mendo is gearing up for a big mail-in ballot process in November. Item 4j on Tuesday’s consent calendar was for the purchase of an “Omation 210 Envelopener” for $7,770.35. The attached purchase order includes a few more thousand for maintenance for an extra three years, but that was not part of the agenda item amount. As usual nobody bothered to ask what this was for nor is there any reason given in the Agenda packet. However, it’s probably safe to assume that such a device is for November mail in ballots. As best we can tell it’s just a glorified tabletop cutting device that strips the top edge of an envelope off at a rate of several hundred per minute. The envelope still has to be hand-opened and the ballot unfolded and processed, though. It’s probably helpful, but we doubt it’ll produce election results any sooner than the month-long process that we’re already used to.

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