On June 30, the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury released its 26 page “Cannabis” report with a series of recommendations for the Board of Supervisors, including amending cannabis ordinances and setting up an independent Ethics Commission.
Grand Jurors are a volunteer group of 19 citizens from the five supervisorial districts. Jurors serve one-year terms and are paid a per diem rate of $25. While jurors remain anonymous, the report states that the 2019-20 Jury is made up of attorneys and CPAs, former law enforcement, business owners, government officials, educators and other professionals.
According to the report, the Jury received several requests prompting their investigation into the actions of the Board of Supervisors surrounding the creation and passage of the cannabis ordinances governing land use, development, coastal zoning and licensing. Through the course of their investigation which began in July 2019, they interviewed the five supervisors who voted on the ordinances, a senior member of the Santa Barbara County CEO staff, a senior member of the Santa Barbara County Planning and Development staff, and numerous other community and business members. They also stated that they reviewed over 1,000 documents produced by the county along with recordings of public meetings, staff reports, emails and texts.
The Jury concluded that cannabis industry representatives had “unequal access” to the Board of Supervisors; that some supervisors “aggressively” pushed “their own agendas”; and that the Board used the cover of an ad hoc subcommittee—not subject to the Brown Act—to craft cannabis ordinances out of public view.
Some senior staff in the office of the county CEO and Planning and Development Department were also targeted by the report as becoming “cannabis advocates” who lost their objectivity and interfered with the responsibilities of independent agencies and elected officials. By its own rules, the Jury is not permitted to name individuals specifically (elected officials, staff or residents).
In their report, the jury offered over a dozen wide-reaching recommendations for revising cannabis ordinances as well as sweeping reforms to the governing practices of the Board of Supervisors. Finding that supervisors did not adequately weigh resident concerns, the Jury recommended that county staff prepare Environmental Impact Reports addressing each county region and reflecting a balance between cannabis, traditional agriculture and resident concerns.
Permissible cannabis production under the current cannabis ordinances is “excessive and has led to overconcentration” in some areas, stated the Jury, recommending that the county eradicate all cannabis grown on acreage claimed under “legal non-conforming” status and to deny cultivation permits when the operator fails to demonstrate that they started growing cannabis prior to Jan. 19, 2016.
In addition, the jury recommended the Board set up an independent Ethics Commission to write a Code of Ethics that would guide supervisors in ethical standards and decision making. After finding that an ad hoc subcommittee “led to a lack of transparency,” the jury recommended that all future ad hoc subcommittees be open to the public and subject to the Brown Act. The Board should also publicly disclose all access granted to lobbying individuals or groups and moreover, recommended the Jury, supervisors should be required to publicly disclose receipt of campaign contributions from donors who have matters pending a decision and should recuse themselves from voting on those matters.
“The Jury believes the Board of Supervisors, in their hubris, failed the people of Santa Barbara County,” concluded the Jury’s report, “Now they must amend the cannabis ordinances to regain the people’s trust.”
The Board of Supervisors is expected to respond to the report within 90 days.