Carpinteria Citizens’ Group Seeks State Audit of County’s Cannabis Regulations

Cannabis plants (stock photo)

By Melinda Burns

Concerned Carpinterians, a cannabis watchdog group that has sought to rein in the greenhouse “grows” that have proliferated in the Carpinteria Valley in recent years, sent a letter this week to the California State Auditor, requesting that Santa Barbara County be placed “at the top of the list” for investigations of potential corruption in local cannabis regulation and licensing.

The March 27 letter to Auditor Grant Parks comes on the heels of last week’s decision by the state Joint Legislative Audit Committee to authorize an audit of cannabis licensing and permit review practices in six California counties, still to be selected.

The letter was signed by Paul Ekstrom, chair of the Concerned Carpinterians steering committee; and committee members Anna Carrillo, Maureen Claffey, James Mannoia, Nanci Robertson, Carla Singer and Jill Stassinos. It states that the Santa Barbara County cannabis ordinance failed to limit the number of licenses per parcel, established an “‘honors system’ index of cannabis cultivators who simply claimed to be medical marijuana growers,” and allowed growers to self-report their gross earnings for purposes of taxation.

“I’d like to see more transparency in the licensing and tax reporting in this county,” Ekstrom said in an interview this week. “Why did the growers get such a sweet deal?”

State records show that Santa Barbara County is No. 1 in California for active cannabis cultivation licenses, with 1,614, or 22 percent of the total. The county has set a 1,761-acre cap on cannabis, including 186 acres in greenhouses in the Carpinteria Valley. To date, the county has issued zoning permits for 1,140 acres, most of them for outdoor grows in the North County.

In its letter to the state Auditor, Concerned Carpinterians cited a 2019 Los Angeles Times report noting that members of CARP Growers, an industry group, donated $16,500 and $12,000, respectively, to the campaigns of county supervisors Das Williams and Steve Lavagnino in the months leading up to the final vote on the cannabis ordinance on Feb. 27, 2018. (The two supervisors, chief architects of the ordinance, have said the contributions did not influence their decisions.)

Concerned Carpinterians’ own research, based on public campaign statements and summarized in the letter, shows that between Oct. 24, 2016 and Dec. 30, 2022, cannabis industry representatives donated $105,000 to Williams in campaign contributions; and that, between Feb. 20, 2018 and March 2, 2022, they donated $42,400 to Lavagnino.

Concerned Carpinterians also sent the state Auditor a copy of the 2020 Santa Barbara Grand Jury report on cannabis, which found that cannabis growers and their lobbyists had enjoyed “nearly unfettered access” to board supervisors during the creation of the local ordinance, both through in-person meetings and “voluminous emails.”

Lavagnino, who represents the Santa Maria Valley, was in Washington, D.C. this week and could not be reached for comment. In a written statement from D.C., Williams, whose district includes the Carpinteria Valley, said that legalizing cannabis had been the best option in the wake of “50 years of a failed drug war against marijuana.”

“I helped write the SB County ordinance in the manner I believed to be best to allow for farms to prosper in order to hurt the black market,” he stated. Williams said he had voted for the acreage cap and “a strong enforcement staff that has raided and busted a large and well-documented number of operations.”

“I know this local group will disparage me forever over having legal marijuana, and the fact I did not take marijuana contributions for a couple years in the midst of this debate obviously does not stop them from attacking me over legal contributions that (were) given 6 years back,” Williams wrote. “What problems there were with implementation of the ordinance have lessened because of constructive work on all sides. We should concentrate on suppressing the black market and ironing out some of the last problems in the legal market, not reignite this conflict in our community.”

Lavagnino, who also was in D.C., sent the following statement:

“I’m not interested in rehashing the same tired accusations. My focus is on tackling this county’s many needs — addressing homelessness, improving our mental health delivery system and responding to our recent flooding issues, all of which require the additional revenue cannabis generates.”

News coverage of corruption in the California cannabis industry has included cases of bribery involving officials in San Luis Obispo and San Bernardino counties and Baldwin Park City.

“Tales of backdoor wheeling-and-dealing between companies and public officials have been circulating for years,” Assemblyman Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, said last week in requesting the state inquiry.

Melinda Burns is an investigative journalist with 40 years of experience covering immigration, water, science and the environment. As a community service, she offers her report to multiple publications in Santa Barbara County, at the same time, for free.

Melinda Burns

Written by Melinda Burns

Melinda Burns is an investigative journalist with 40 years of experience covering immigration, water, science and the environment. As a community service, she offers her reports to multiple publications in Santa Barbara County, at the same time, for free.

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  1. Cannabis industry representatives donated $105,000 to Williams in campaign contributions; and $42,400 to Supervisor Steve Lavagnino. Das Williams now says “We should….not reignite this conflict in our community.” That response is about as satisfying as saying “just move along folks, nothing to see here” or “the check is in the mail” or “of course I’ll respect you in the morning” or “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.” Das has been bought by the cannabis cabal and sold out the interests of his First District constituents. May the State audit reveal how far his hand is caught in the cannabis cookie jar.

    • This is a timely quote from today’s LAT re: former LA Supervisor Ridley-Thomas and it is relevant: “Public officials are elected to be a voice and a vote for the people they’re paid to represent, not for their own personal gain,” said Donald Alway, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office.
      If Santa Barbara supervisors Lavagnino and Williams have done no wrong, they have nothing to worry about.

  2. Agree w Bird – Das, you’re saying you did nothing wrong. So here’s my advice – don’t sweat it buddy. Let the auditors do their job, and you should be fine right? Why try and snuff out those who want some transparency? Oh yeah, I know why. You’re scared. And you should be. He’s already acting like a tax-evader that’s getting an IRS audit.

  3. Bring on the State audit of the development and implementation of the Santa Barbara County cannabis regulations. The Superior Court affirmed both the development and implementation of those regulations in the Busy Bee case. There is literally nothing to see.
    As much as the cannabis opponents and their propagandists talk, they only seek to anger and instill fear in the community. They want people to be angry at some elected officials, at others involved. I would love to believe that State audit findings would be the final word for the opposition and their propagandists. It won’t be. They just can’t quit. It isn’t 2024 yet.

  4. Often, American politics has encouraged election of the most highly funded candidate over election of the best candidate. Shouldn’t voters have the only say in electing a public official? The salaries of elected public officials are posted. If you want that job and get elected, accept the salary and do the job. Period. Let your re-election depend upon your merits and achievements. If you take away campaign contributions from the process, wouldn’t we elect more honorable, less corruptible, more hard-working public officials? Taking campaign money and indebtedness to the contributor go hand in hand. “Pay to play” seems like the modus operandi in American politics. Of course it’s all been legitimized by the Supreme Court’s ruling that “corporations are people, too.” “Serve the people well in your district” takes second or third place in our society, or as in this case, within the First District Supervisorial District.

  5. Das is still using his attack playbook and weirdly feels he deserves “credit” for taking a year off from cannabis donations (really rewarding the cannabis and GOP donors who funded his 2020 Pac and reelection campaigns). Then last year, despite having to vote on a series of appeals and ordinance changes most beneficial to his Carp grower buddies, he took several 1000 from them – again. Does he think people are stupid!?

  6. Das Williams “donations” will finally get looked into. This is a start for a better tomorrow where Das Williams could be removed or forced to step down due to public pressure so we don’t have to worry about him bringing down SB county even further while lining his own pockets. It is about time he gets stopped with his bully tactics towards anyone who does not agree with him. He is a disgrace for the office and the county.

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