Sonoma County CAG (Cannabis Advisory Group) membership conflicts of interest highlighted in formal complaint by SOSN
March 6, 2018
Sheryl Bratton, County Administrator
Bruce Goldstein, County Counsel
575 Administration Drive, Room 100 A
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
The Cannabis Advisory Group Should Disclose All Conflicts of Interest
Dear Ms. Bratton and Mr. Goldstein:
I am concerned that many members of Cannabis Advisory Group (CAG) are using their positions on the CAG to influence decisions in which they have a financial interest or an organizational responsibility. They may also have personal relationships that would constitute a conflict of interest. I discuss specific examples below. If the CAG is to continue, I believe that all members should be required to disclose, perhaps on Form 700 (Statements of Economic Interest), their financial relationships with regard to any past, present, or anticipated involvements in applications for cannabis permits.
I attended the CAG meeting on February 28th to suggest that it recommend that the land covered by the Bennett Valley Area Plan, as well as the other five rural area plans in Sonoma County, be designated exclusion zones where commercial cannabis cannot be cultivated. Many CAG members used this forum to espouse pro-cannabis cultivation points of view to such an extent that the CAG seems to be functioning as a Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, not an impartial advisory committee. Only two members of the committee’s twenty members represent neighborhoods that are affected by the policies under consideration.
At this meeting, the CAG unanimously approved a series of formal findings and recommendations that will be considered by the Cannabis Ad Hoc Committee and ultimately the full board of supervisors. These include a Cultivation Subgroup Report and a Supply Chain Alignment with State Law report. So far as I can tell, no member of the CAG disclosed any conflicts of interest, nor recused him/herself from deliberations or the formal recommendations.
I looked into the backgrounds of members of the CAG, most of which I have learned from an online article in the Emerald Report entitled “Meet 20 Sonoma County residents advising lawmakers on cannabis’ future.” http://www.emeraldreport.com/meet-20-sonoma-county-residents-advising-lawmakers-cannabis-future/. I assume this information is accurate, but have little independent knowledge.
I. Conflict of Interest Policies
I have not located any Sonoma County general conflict of interest policy for advisory boards, but Contra Costa County’s policy states in pertinent part that advisory committee members must identify and disclose any of their personal financial interests that could be affected if the Board of Supervisors were to approve the committee’s advisory recommendations. Committee members should also elect not to participate (recuse themselves) if they hold personal financial interests which would be affected by any formal recommendation made by the committee.
http://www.contracosta.ca.gov/6191/Understanding-Ethics-Conflict-of-Interes. I would hope that Sonoma County has a similar general policy.
Sonoma County did specify such a policy for the Independent Citizen Advisory Committee on Pension Matters:
Committee members are prohibited from using their official positions to
influence decisions in which they have a financial interest, or an organizational
responsibility, or where they have a personal relationship that would constitute a conflict of interest. Committee members should avoid taking any action that could be construed, or create the appearance of, using public office for personal gain, including use of the title of Committee Member or other County resources to obtain or promote personal interests and/or businesses.
http://sonomacounty.ca.gov/Pension-Matters/Ethics-Policy/. I assume that similar policies apply to the CAG, and if they do not an explanation would be in order.
II. Apparent Conflicts of Interest of CAG Members
Below I identify financial and personal conflicts of interest that are apparent from public records. There are likely others that cannot be known without requiring disclosures by the members of the
At the time the CAG members were appointed on July 18, 2017, five members were identified as being involved in cultivation:
Tawnie Logan, Julie Terry, Alexa Garcia Wall, and Katherine Dowdney.
Samual Edwards also seems to be a cultivator.
Brandon Levine is developing a cannabis farm in Santa Rosa. http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/6985138-181/santa-rosa-cannabis-business-fuels?sba=AAS
Many of the CAG’s official recommendations would loosen restrictions for cannabis farms, making such farms more lucrative and a personal financial benefit for cultivators. Among the recommendations the cultivators endorsed on February 28th are:
• Change the county ordinance to mature plant canopy instead of building footprint. This change would allow more plants to be grown and more profit for cultivators. It also makes it more difficult for the limited enforcement staff at Permit Sonoma to insure compliance (a drone or satellite photo can ensure the greenhouse has not been enlarged; it would require time-consuming physical inspections for multiple crops each year at each farm to measure the canopy). To put it mildly, the cannabis industry has a poor record of
obeying laws and the pubic does not believe cultivators will scrupulously comply.
• Make the 1,000-foot setbacks from schools and parks discretionary or a case-by-case basis. This would open up additional properties for cannabis farms and turn application proceedings into time-consuming arguments instead of bright line requirements. It seems likely that some cultivators have a personal financial interest in this change.
• Allow cultivators to increase the allowed amount of cultivation area by having an “R&D” plot. Cultivators have a personal financial interest because this expands the currently-allowed cultivation area. Enforcement staff cannot be expected to determine whether such “research and development” plots are legitimate or just more marijuana. In any event, R&D plots can be part of the normal cultivation area under the current ordinance.
• Disparities between state and local ordinances are “significant challenges.” The cultivators have a personal financial interest in playing governmental entities off against one another to seek the least stringent requirements. Many industries have to live with disparities among federal, state, and local requirements. This is nothing new.
On a posting on Nextdoor on March 5th, CAG member Alexa Garcia Wall stated that “five [members of the CAG] are operators seeking permits in the county.” Below I note two that I can identify. The public and the supervisors should know about all such permit applications.
Alexa Garcia Wall. Ms. Wall is the new owner of a proposed cannabis farm [ZPC17-0013] in the Sonoma Mountain Area Plan. Her website for Luma California states “We Are Focused on Permitting Our New Sonoma County Cannabis Farm for Greenhouse And Outdoor Cultivation!”
https://www.lumacalifornia.com/ Ms. Wall cannot be objective about evaluating area plans as exclusion zones because her farm is located within an area plan.
Shivawn Brady. Director of Operations, Justice Grown (formerly Effingham Medical Farms).
The permit file indicates that Justice Grown is the financial backer behind a proposed cannabis farm in the Bennett Valley Area Plan [UPC17-0065]. This is not immediately obvious because the operator (Matanzas Alliance LLC) and land owner (SRG3541 Regional Parkway LLC, near Ms. Sheryl Bratton
Chicago) are limited liability corporations that hide their relationship with Justice Grown. Many of the CAG’s official recommendations would loosen restrictions on cannabis farms, making the proposed farm more lucrative. This property is well within 1,000 feet of North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park, and Ms. Brady’s endorsement of relaxing this setback is of great financial benefit to her employer. For these reasons, Ms. Brady’s organizational responsibility constitutes a conflict of interest. Moreover, the property is located within the Bennett Valley Area Plan and her employer would surely oppose designating area plans as exclusion zones.
The two lawyers who are members of the CAG specialize in representing the cannabis industry. It seems likely that any such lawyer, or the lawyer’s firm, will have clients with cannabis applications pending before the county. The lawyers may also have clients who plan on filing permit applications if the CAG sufficiently loosens the ordinance. Under these circumstances, the lawyer would have a personal financial interest in the CAG’s official recommendations. Financial disclosures are needed in which the lawyers identify their clients who have permitting matters pending before Sonoma County.
Omar Figueroa. Mr. Figueroa’s web site states “Our team is available to assist your business with local permits and authorizations, state licensing, and day-to-day regulatory compliance. Our office can also assist with the drafting and implementation of local ordinances designed to regulate cannabis activities . . . .” (Emphasis added). http://www.omarfigueroa.com/practiceareas/
permitting-licensing-regulatory-compliance/. Mr. Figueroa seems to be promoting his ability to influence and even draft revisions to the Sonoma County cannabis ordinance by his position on the CAG. The members of the Sonoma County pension advisory committee cannot create the appearance of using public office for personal gain, but Mr. Figueroa does just that.
Julie Mercer-Ingram. Ms. Ingram’s LinkedIn site states that she “[d]iligently advises clients on a wide range of cannabis related legal issues from regulatory compliance and land use to entity formation and business transactions.” https://www.linkedin.com/in/julie-mercer-ingramaab51734.
The site also notes that she is Co-chair of the Sonoma County Cannabis Advisory Group. The members of the Sonoma County pension advisory committee cannot use their position on the advisory board to promote business or create the appearance of using public office for personal gain, but Ms. Ingram does just that.
The consultants on the CAG specialize in representing the cannabis industry. It seems likely that any such consultant, or the consultant’s firm, have advised and continue to advise clients with cannabis applications pending before the county. The consultants may also have clients who plan on filing permit applications if the CAG sufficiently loosens the ordinance. If so, any such
consultant has a personal financial interest in the CAG’s official recommendations.
The consultants on the CAG seem to include Paula Blaydes, Arthur Deicke, Shivawn Brady, and Samual Edwards. There may be others, which might not be known without financial disclosures.
Apparently, many members of the CAG stand to gain financially by the recommendations that they have already proposed or may propose in the future. These include pending or future cannabis land use applications. Members may also be stifling recommendations that would benefit neighborhoods by failing to consider or recommend, for example, placing rural area plans into exclusion zones. The CAG is tainted, both as to the recommendations it has made and the recommendations it has not made.
At a minimum, all CAG members should be required to disclose their financial relationships with the cannabis industry. Those with conflicts of interest should be recused from not only decisions but from decision making. Any current member with severe conflicts of interest should resign or be removed from the CAG. Such individuals could continue to participate at CAG
meetings during the two-minute public comment periods.
cc: Supervisor Susan Gorin, Cannabis Ad Hoc Committee
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, Cannabis Ad Hoc Committee
Supervisor James Gore, Chairman, Board of Supervisors
Supervisor David Rabbitt
Supervisor Shirlee Zane