Two top elected officials have expressed reservations about an initiative that would allow commercial production of marijuana in Ventura County, but the sheriff’s concerns made it into a voter study in the final hours while the tax collector’s were eliminated.
County Treasurer-Tax Collector Steven Hintz’s concerns about the financial risk were reported in the first version of the study posted for the Board of Supervisors’ consideration in late August.
Hintz has stated he is „unwilling to collect cannabis tax revenue or to deposit it into the general fund, as doing so could expose the county’s financial assets to seizure and subject county staff to federal criminal penalties,” said the study written by HdL Companies of Orange County.
Within hours, though, the document was taken off the board’s website the day before the supervisors’ Sept. 1 meeting. It was replaced late in the day with Hintz’s comments stricken and the sheriff’s concerns about a potential spike in crimes added.
The measure allows the commercial cultivation, processing and distribution of cannabis within the unincorporated area of Ventura County. Sales could be made between licensed distributors but the measure would not permit retail sales to the general public in the unincorporated area.
Hintz’s comments were struck based on the advice of County Counsel Leroy Smith, said James Importante, a management analyst in the top administrative office for the county government.
Smith found that Hintz’s remarks were not permitted by law because they were speculative, rather than a statement of known impacts of the measure on the Nov. 3 ballot. It’s unknown what federal law will say on the legality of marijuana by the time tax revenues need to be deposited in two years, Smith said.
More: Study sees no significant harm from pot measure on November ballot
Under a California Supreme Court decision, governments cannot use taxpayer money to campaign for or against an initiative once it is ordered to the ballot, Smith said.
„The report should be an objective statement of the facts that would lay out what the known impacts would be if the initiative was passed,” he said. „The report should not have commentary or argument or anything close to electioneering.”
By the time the 37-page, $21,500 study was issued publicly on Aug. 31, the board had already placed the measure on the ballot.
‚Important for public to know’
Hintz took no issue with Smith’s advice on removing argumentative language. But he was disappointed that comments were dropped about his unwillingness to accept cannabis tax revenues and deposit them into the county’s general fund, he said.
„I think it would be important for the public to know that the treasurer will not do the things that the ordinance directs the treasurer to do,” he said.
Hintz said he sent several emails about his concerns to a retired county manager assisting with the study when the groundwork was being laid for the analysis.
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The Star requested copies of the exchange of emails between Hintz and former manager Chris Stephens as public records. Hintz was willing to release them if it was legal, but said he needed to get permission from Smith as the county’s legal counsel first.
Smith said the emails do not have to be disclosed because they were part of the deliberative process for the study. That is an allowed exemption to the state’s Public Records Act, but the law does not forbid disclosure.
Sheriff cites crime risk
The list of changes that Sheriff Bill Ayub recommended appear to have been added in their entirety to the report, based on a comparison of a memo that Ayub sent to the board and two versions of the study.
The recommendations came from a five-page memo to the board in which Ayub said the Sheriff’s Office anticipates a spike in robberies, burglaries, grand theft, embezzlement and fraud as well as violent crimes related to the commission of those crimes. He said it would be nearly impossible to track whether a legal business was dealing in stolen marijuana crops because the product is bought and sold in cash transactions.
He also said legalization had created a number of unforeseen problems when the commercial cultivation of cannabis was legalized in 2017 in Santa Barbara County. Included were the emergence of a substantial number of illegal cultivators who tried to give the appearance they were acting legally, he said.
At Ayub’s request, language was deleted that tied illegal sales of marijuana to the large percentage of the California market with no legal access.
Capt. Brian Slominski, who oversees the sheriff’s narcotics bureau, said he recommended cutting that section because retail sales don’t relate to the cultivation of marijuana allowed in the measure. There is no shortage of cannabis in the legal dispensaries in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, based on conversations with representatives of those businesses, the sheriff’s memo said.
Smith said he read Ayub’s memo but did not realize his suggestions had been incorporated into the study. Even so, he said he did not see any legal problems because the sheriff’s comments were more factual in nature and reflected data.
The firm added the sheriff’s changes to the report the day before the Sept. 1 board meeting at the request of officials in the Office of County Executive Officer Mike Powers, according to Importante.
Importante along with Powers and Assistant Executive Officer Mike Pettit decided the revision was appropriate because the board had directed that the views of the sheriff’s office on public safety be included, Importante said.
Supervisors directed that the study evaluate the impact on land use and incorporate the findings of four county agencies, not including the tax collector.The sheriff was asked to comment on the impact on public safety, the agricultural commissioner on the effect on the agricultural industry, the CEO’s office on the fiscal impact on the county government’s funds and property values, and the Resource Management Agency on the impact on a new 20-year land-use and environmental plan.
Mark Lovelace, senior adviser at HdL, said the earlier language he drafted was revised after additional information came in from the sheriff’s office. The final report noted that the section on public safety came from the Sheriff’s Office, while the earlier version said it had been prepared with the office’s input.
„Because of the short timeframe for making final edits, it was easiest to just substitute the section as provided by the (sheriff’s office,)” Lovelace said.
The consultant put a footnote in the study to show that the Sheriff’s Office had provided the public safety section, but did not change the firm’s basic finding that there would be no significant impact on crime.
Under what’s called Measure O, up to 500 acres would be allowed for cultivation and 100 acres for propagation of seedlings within indoor facilities in agricultural and certain industrial areas if the measure passes. But the study showed only 220 acres or a third of that amount would actually take place because of the restrictions in the measure and existing land use.
The turnaround for the cannabis study was just a month, much shorter than normal, but the board wanted it delivered by Sept. 1. Supervisors pushed for quick delivery because vote-by-mail ballots go out starting Oct. 5 for the Nov. 3 election.
Lovelace said he had prepared a number of analyses on ballot initiatives for other counties, and that it is just the reality of trying to produce such a comprehensive report within 30 days that there will always be some last-minute editing.
The study is posted on at ventura.org/bosagenda under the supervisors’ Sept. 1 meeting.
Ballots: Most Ventura County voters will receive their ballots the week of Oct. 5. If not received by Oct. 16, voters should contact the elections office and request a second ballot be mailed.
Deadline to register: Online by Oct. 19 and in-person only Oct. 20 to Nov. 3.
When to vote: Mail in ballots by Election Day or vote in person Oct. 31-Nov. 2 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 47 polling stations. Nov. 3 from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
To check registration: voterstatus.sos.ca.gov
Find out more: venturavote.org.
For coverage of Ventura County races and issues: www.vcstar.com/elections
Kathleen Wilson covers the Ventura County government, including the county health system, politics and social services. Reach her at email@example.com or 805-437-0271.