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The Das v. Laura Debate: Politically Blunt or Naïve?

First, I want to offer a shout-out of
gratitude to our local media and civic organizations for a series of public
debates between 1st District county supervisor candidates Das Williams and
Laura Capps. It’s great to see a responsible and independent Fourth Estate
performing its civic duty in greater Santa Barbara. I want to especially thank
journalist Jerry Roberts for
posting his interview with the two online.

I’ve discerned that Supervisor Williams’s
advocates want to talk about everything but the “giant spliff” in the
room. Marijuana, with its law enforcement, economic, scientific, cultural, and
social effects, has seemingly overtaken Santa Barbara County in just two years.
Instead of addressing this, Williams’s advocates want us to focus on his image
as an experienced incumbent with a long record of accomplishments, and to
regard Laura Capps as a newcomer without experience who might not even be a
serious candidate. However, an examination of the factual record, particularly
the incumbent’s record since the cannabis sativa behemoth blew in, belies this
scenario.

Both the incumbent and the challenger
are experienced public servants who grew up steeped in local politics. One
gained experience over 17 years in the rough-and-tumble of city, state, and
county offices. The other practically had progressive politics served nightly
on her dinner plate, received a top education at Berkeley and at the London
School of Economics, and finally spent a decade crafting legislation at the
highest levels of the federal government, in both the executive and legislative
branches.

My opinion is that the consequential,
salient issue on which this election should be decided is integrity and ethics.
While Williams deserves the gratitude of Santa Barbara County residents for his
constituent service in the post-mudslide recovery, we should not turn a blind
eye to his record on the pot industry, fueled by his acceptance of more than
$60,000 in that industry’s contributions.

In my analysis, the incumbency cannot
be argued both ways: It’s disingenuous to claim that one possesses a superior
level of legislative experience on the one hand, while on the other hand giving
oneself a hall pass for naïveté in opening the regulatory door wide for
California’s marijuana millionaires. Our beloved county, renowned for the heady
Mediterranean-influenced scents of floriculture, viticulture, and pomology —
luring seven million visitors per annum — has been hit by two stronger scents.
One comes from the stinky terpene chemical odors in Carpinteria and along State Route 246 during
the weed-drying process; the other comes from the stench of public corruption
brought about by catering to special-interest lobbyists.

Williams and fellow “Doobie
Brother” Supervisor Steve Lavagnino’s circumvention of the state’s Brown
Act governing open meetings, by forming a two-supervisor, non-transparent
committee in 2017, then working with pot lobbyists to craft a lax ordinance, is
now well documented, thanks to two long investigative stories by the Los
Angeles Times
and the work of industrious local reporters. These
supervisors’ gaffes have made Santa Barbara County a national case study in how
not to introduce, manage, tax, and regulate cannabis sativa.

Stories such as “Flower Town
Grapples with Pot Industry’s Stench” from the Associated Press are echoing
round the world and could in future alter our county’s image as a wholesome and
healthy mecca for beachgoers, mountain climbers, and especially families.
Homeowners’ property values near pot-growing operations could also be at stake.

Why couldn’t our supervisors follow
the lead of Ventura County, which bans commercial cannabis cultivation but is
earning tax revenue from its 4,000 acres permitted to grow industrial hemp?

“Unlike most counties, we rushed
in. We didn’t do due diligence. There was no economic impact study on the wine
industry … the avocado industry,” Capps told Roberts. “There was no
science yet to say that kind of exposure to children, and to adults for that
matter, is okay.”

Supervisors Williams and Lavagnino
promised to limit pot farms to just 10,000 square feet, but instead we ended up
with loopholes allowing growers to purchase and “stack” multiple
licenses to create giant pot plantations. Parents and school leaders in
Carpinteria are dismayed at having pot farms in uncomfortable proximity to
Carpinteria High, the Howard School, the Boys and Girls Clubs, and the historic
1910 Cate School. Pot farms are so close to traditional Santa Barbara
agriculture that avocado and citrus growers, who must use certain pesticides on
their crops, are worried about potential lawsuits from nearby pot purveyors.
And given the enormous size of our county’s new pot industry, financial
watchdogs have been calling for investigations into why comparatively little
tax money has flowed into county coffers.

Up county, my friends Blair and
Dianne Pence, who grow award-winning pinot noir and other varietals in the Sta.
Rita Hills viticultural area, have been fighting “cannagribusiness”
through the County Planning Commission appeals process, successfully persuading
commissioners to deny a 73-acre operation next door and to scale back another’s
37 acres to 12.5. But this temporary measure is likely to be appealed and could
be overridden by — guess who — the supervisors.

To his credit, Williams has been making
the argument that tax and other revenues from pot growing is the only thing
that will save public schools in struggling communities such as Carpinteria,
where he lives. He noted in the Newsmakers interview: “I’ve done an
analysis of the very property taxes in Carpinteria that are growing marijuana,
and their property tax before 2016 was anemic, flat. And then between 2016 and
2018 it went up 18 percent. And just last year went up 20 percent.”

Residents clearly want this industry
to be regulated. Six months ago, it was widely reported that farms in our
county held 35 percent of all California marijuana cultivation licenses issued
in 2019, despite our small size representing just 1.8 percent of the state’s
land. This month, the County Planning Commission began hearings on the subject,
with a wide range of residents asking for restricting the size and types of
cannabis operations, tightening the permitting process, requiring odor control,
and establishing more reasonable setbacks and buffers — safeguards that many
believe should have been part of the original ordinance.

In my opinion, the prudent way to
face this powerful and highly controversial industry is to elect Laura Capps
and support her five-element campaign finance reform package, including: a ban
on contributions from industries with business before the supervisors; limits
on both campaign contributions and candidate spending; an ethics commission;
and greater transparency on campaign donations. Voting for Laura Capps, a
candidate unconnected to the cannabis industry, would help send a signal to the
rest of the supervisors that Santa Barbara County residents will not tolerate
cozy relationships with lobbyists. We need public officials who possess the
ethical chops to weigh special interests’ wish lists against more important criteria,
the public interest and the commonweal.

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