Since 1956, the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association (SBCTA) has been weighing in on issues of importance to county taxpayers.

Tom Widroe

Tom Widroe

SBCTA cares about how our county operates, and how county staff and elected officials make use of the enormous power granted to them by county residents and voters to meet the county’s goals and its stated mission.

The association has a long history of demanding transparency and accountability from county staff and elected officials in pursuit of their goals and obligations.

One of our core beliefs is that important government decisions are observable and understandable by county residents, and free from concern that the integrity of the decision process is in any way compromised due to inappropriate outside influence.

While we feel that, in general, the Santa Barbara County’s operations satisfy our standards, the current scheme used to evaluate applicants for the county’s six retail cannabis licenses raises concern.

The SBCTA has remained mute thus far with respect to the county’s cannabis dispensary application evaluation process, but the current lawsuit filed by Natural Healing Center regarding the rejection of their application for a dispensary in Orcutt raises some serious questions.

Just last August, Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino warned his colleagues that a so-called merit-based selection process could expose the county to challenges of staff decisions and/or those of their hired consultant. In fact, the lawsuit brought by the rejected Orcutt applicant, Natural Healing Center, alleges that county staff’s decision-making process was arbitrary and lacking in evidentiary support.

The one certainty, in the opinion of SBCTA, is that the evaluation and decision-making process failed to meet the standards of transparency, observability and understanding, which we feel county residents and voters deserve.

Soon, the the judge in the case will rule on the merits of NHC’s claims advanced in its suit. The judge may decide the county’s process was fully discretionary and therefore beyond reproach, or that the current process is flawed and demands a remedy.

While SBCTA must respect whatever decision the court may render, it must not be construed that SBCTA endorses what the county has done here. SBCTA has concerns over the scoring methodology used to rank the six applicants as the most meritorious for their respective community plan areas.

Our past experience supports the conclusion that forced ranking systems are often flawed and require great scrutiny to ensure an equitable result.

How many county residents know the contents of the 22 applications the county received for the six retail licenses? Those valuable licenses will be awarded to six private companies in a process out of sight of residents.

While the contents of the applicants’ 150-page submissions were initially unavailable for public perusal,16 of those submissions are now available for public examination, a result of the court’s direction to Santa Barbara County. The remaining six applications and supporting materials for the Orcutt dispensary remain sequestered from public view.

Additionally, what were the county’s requirements for an applicant to enter the process in the first place? Again, we do not know.

The applications are essentially a user’s manual for how the company will operate in Santa Barbara County, including specific details about business operations, site security plans, employee training for handling and selling cannabis, their community involvement plan and more.

Other vital details include ownership structure and experience operating a cannabis business. Most notably, “neighborhood compatibility” deals with proximity to sensitive receptors (schools, day care facilities), accommodation for on-site and off-site parking, traffic, odor controls, exterior design — some 25 different categories in all.

Given the potential impact from cannabis dispensaries, the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association feels, in the interest of transparency and community involvement, that residents throughout the county should have been given the ability to examine the information the county received from each applicant before any selections were made.

Decisions of such magnitude are best not made behind closed doors, out of public view. It is entirely reasonable to ask why the dispensary licensee selection process was conducted in this manner.

Why discourage, or even prevent a full and robust discussion that would allow the public careful observation and evaluation, with ample opportunity to express their opinions, suggestions, opposition or support? Anything less invites concern that undue influence compromised the integrity of the process.

We would certainly invite the court to join us in our opinion. We also hope the court orders the county to re-boot this process and, at that time, allow the public access to all of the relevant information. Santa Barbara County residents deserve nothing less.

— Tom Widroe is executive director of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. The opinions expressed are his own.

Tom Widroe is executive director of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. The opinions expressed are his own.