MENDOCINO Co., 3/20/18 — Mendocino is without an agricultural commissioner or an assistant ag commissioner. Joe Moreo lasted five days and Diane Curry, previously the interim ag commissioner, was escorted out of the ag department offices after she submitted her resignation on March 13, without the opportunity to give staff some parting instructions, or even eat a slice of farewell cake. And several ag department employees, who are part of the cannabis cultivation licensing program, will now be overseen by the new cannabis program manager.
The changes have reverberated throughout the cannabis farming community, sowing doubt as to what implications the shift will have on the program. In response, County CEO Carmel Angelo and Supervisor Dan Hamburg, who currently sits as chair of the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors, explained that the decision to re-organize staff was made with the hope that more license applications will be issued to cannabis cultivators, and more quickly.
With the exception of five days in late February, Mendocino County has been without a permanent agricultural commissioner and sealer of weights and measures since the departure of Chuck Morse in January of 2017. And during that time (with the exception of Moreo’s brief reign) assistant ag commissioner Diane Curry has served as the interim commissioner. In this capacity she oversaw the development and management of the cannabis cultivation licensing program which began in May of 2017, as well as the rest of the ag department.
On March 13, Curry submitted her resignation and was placed on paid administrative leave, and will remain so until March 24, when her resignation becomes official. Jennifer Kraus, who was office services supervisor in the ag department and had been employed with the county since 2002 also resigned. Sources close to the situation say that Curry was frustrated by changes planned for the cultivation licensing program and resigned in response.
Curry’s departure coincided with other major developments in the cannabis licensing program. Kelly Overton, a former animal rights activist, was hired as the cannabis program manager (referred to colloquially as the ‘cannabis czar’) in the middle of Moreo’s five day tenure. (You can see Overton’s seemingly autobiographical Wikipedia page here). The “czar” position has been in the works since summer 2017. Kelly’s salary is $98,092.80 annually (not including benefits).
Following that, five ag dept. employees were reorganized to report to Overton under the aegis of the executive dept. Angelo has said this will not affect their work classification as ag bureaucrats, a major consideration career-wise, but sources say the staff were concerned about whether the change would affect their ability to accrue state ag certifications.
After the March 13 meeting, and in response to the various changes, Casey O’Neill, local cannabis farmer and board member of the California Growers Association said, “I am profoundly disappointed by the current discord.” And with regard to the consolidation of the licensing program away from ag, he continued, “We fought very hard to regulate by the dept of ag because we are farmers, and ag is the appropriate department to regulate us. For the sake of the program, county staff, and the community, I hope this gets ironed out very quickly.”
Licensing approval and the cannabis program unit
“This whole thing has been a work in progress — some would call it a slow train wreck — let’s just say it’s been evolving,” Supervisor Hamburg said of the county’s cultivation permit program.
Out of 847 applicants to the program, Mendocino County has given issued about 100 permits. Overton said that 656 of those came in within the first 90 days of the program. About 700 remain in the pipeline for various reasons, as of this week -- but the why the delays are happening is a source of some debate.
Curry’s previous reports to the Board had noted that some delays have come from outside the department. These include delays at other agencies and departments, along with frequent changes to regulations at all levels. It is estimated that there are thousands of cannabis farmers in the county, yet fewer than 1,000 applications have been received. The frequent regulation changes and bureaucratic hurdles resulting from navigating the various agencies create a distinct disincentive to enrolling in the program.
The Board met on March 13, and in closed session discussed the hiring of a new ag commissioner. During that meeting, supervisors also discussed the county’s budget. During the discussion, Curry noted the department had an additional $400,000 at the end of last year from application fees, and that the bills to cultivators had just been sent out in January, so more revenue was expected to come in. The budget was based on projected revenue from cannabis licenses. In a March 17 interview, CEO Angelo said, “[The ag dept. budget] is effectively $400,000 over budget, and one reason is that they have not been bringing in the cannabis fees that we thought they would.” In fairness, several departments’ budgets are projected to run in the red, including but not limited to: ag, $318,241 over budget; juvenile hall, $432,0086 over; planning and building, $843,068 over; court collections $588,832 over; the Sheriff - Coroner’s Office, $1,091,278 over.
During the same meeting, Overton gave his first presentation to the supervisors, promising to expedite the licensing process by creating a “fast track” for certain applicants, and cited 31 applications that have been processed since he took the position two weeks ago. Though he touted his success in “fast tracking” licenses, people familiar with procedure say it’s likely these applications were already on the verge of being approved when he took over. He also said that he was working on improvements to the program in response to the concerns of local cannabis stakeholders.
Near the end of that meeting, a different scene unfolded outside. Several witnesses describe seeing Curry being escorted out of her office, with only minutes to collect years worth of personal belongings, prompting tears from some of her ag department staff and several cultivators. Sources close to the situation say Curry had not been planning to resign, and instead decided to in response to the changes in cultivation program staff supervision. Many cultivation program applicants expressed their support of her and her staff, stating they’d hoped she would replace Moreo as the new commissioner. Curry had been ineligible for the job previously, since she lacked certain certifications, but she had received them by March 13.
Ron Edwards, a local nursery owner who has been a regular presence at cannabis regulatory meetings expressed frustration after the March 13 meeting, saying that it seems as though the board is trying to destroy the ag department, even though he believes it has been the department most useful to and cooperative with growers. He also decried what he perceives as wasteful spending during the development of the county’s regulatory program.
In the interview, Angelo touted the new permit approvals as the best evidence that Overton would make the system more efficient. Emphasizing the fact that the permit program began under Curry’s supervision, she said, “We are very concerned that what we had promised the public has not happened.”
She added that she believes the ag department had not been prioritizing the cannabis cultivation program, citing the office’s Friday closures, requirement of an appointment to submit a license application, and untimely staff breaks as issues for cultivators seeking assistance. However, since Overton took over, she said that, “In a very short period of time we’ve seen some successes: the board direction is being followed...”
She also pointed to a lack of inter-departmental cooperation as an issue. “As it turned out the biggest problem we’ve had was with the ag department,” Angelo said. “Once Moreo left, we decided that we’d go ahead and move those staff.” She continued, “It’s very easy for one department to point fingers at another department — the fact is that the cannabis program is under the ag department, the responsibility was to work through the county system and develop an effective program rather than pointing fingers at one department — to develop a system where those departments work collaboratively, and that didn’t happen.”
The task of regulating a historically underground industry is substantial, and costly. Prior to the passage of the regulations the supervisors said they didn’t want growers to spend large sums of money to come into compliance only to ultimately fail — while still paying the hefty fees required — since approval could happen at the county level, only to be stymied when seeking permits from the state. Cultivators have long lobbied the Board, highlighting the challenges preventing small farms from coming into compliance — including high fees and taxes, restrictive regulations over where cultivation can occur, and regulations that might conflict with requirements from other agencies.
California’s statewide cultivation permits are issued by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The county’s cannabis cultivation ordinance, as well as various state programs, are designed to be coordinated with the county’s agriculture department. Angelo stated her office had been in touch with the CDFA, and that she expected that relationship to improve under Overton’s direction.
“The expectation of the board was that the cannabis manager would not only direct the program, but be the liaison with the state, track and trace, the liaison all things cannabis. They would ensure there was a system in place, overarching all the programs — a system that effectively ran, and problem solved between departments,” Angelo said.“Our goal is helping cultivators who are applying, to make sure they can get through our program, then effectively getting them through the state program.” She added, “It’s the same process, they just won’t have to wait until they actually get an answer.”
Mendocino County Human Resources Director Heidi Dunham said that Overton is supervising five ag department employees and one clerical position and commented in an email:
“The cannabis positions were supervised by the Ag Commissioner prior to the hire of the Cannabis Program Manager. Their supervisor has changed. That happens all the time in County departments. They are still Ag Employees. HR will be working directly with the affected staff in reviewing their classification specification to make sure it reflects their actual duties. That is also something we do all the time in HR. If we find changes in their classification need to be made we will go through our formal process which involves the Union and the Civil Service Commission.”
Speaking to Overton’s qualifications, Hamburg noted,“There’s not a pool of people out there,” with experience in the role, and that it would be a challenging job for anyone. Angelo said that there are currently no plans to shift other staff to Overton’s supervision. A sixth position in the ag department’s cultivation program that has not yet been filled may be eliminated, depending on Overton’s recommendations, she added.
Finding a new commissioner
We managed to get reach Moreo, previously the ag commissioner of Modoc County, on the phone at his home in Alturas. He would not speak to the reason for his departure, implying that the terms of his departure restricted his ability to comment. However, sources close to the situation have indicated that Moreo had believed that he would be charged with running the cannabis program, a state of affairs he looked forward to. Upon being hired in Mendo it became apparent that he would not.
Hamburg said that several applicants for commissioner were reluctant to take on the task of regulating cannabis cultivation and that he believed that Moreo was excited about the prospect. He noted, “But at that point we’d already made the decision we would bring on this cannabis administrator, which was a decision to lessen the work of the ag department.” Hamburg said the board would re-contact some of these applicants for interviews.
Angelo said “We are starting an initial interview process on Monday, March 19, hiring for the positions for ag commissioner and assistant ag commissioner. We are also working with neighboring counties to develop a contract to function until we have someone in place.” The open positions were posted last week, the ag commissioner can be found here.
“I know she had a lot of support. People liked her, they felt like she was trying to make the system work,” Hamburg said of Curry’s after her departure. “It’s just kind of unfortunate the way the situation evolved, her communication with the public may have been better than within in the county structure -- why is that? I don’t really know. There were board meetings where it was really tense, I don’t even know what that was about.”
Said Angelo, “Mendocino County is a cannabis cultivation county, it’s an economic driver in our county. We have no intention of developing a program or an ordinance that will negatively impact the cannabis industry. I think the board has been more than fair with the cultivators since the ordinance was developed and adopted, we’ve made many changes that favor the cannabis industry — going forward we’re all part of this community.”
Kate B. Maxwell, [email protected]
Additional reporting contributed by A.F. Baumann.