Press Clips: Deciphering the Bombshell L.A. Magazine Piece That Just Hit SB City Hall
The legendary press baron Joseph Pulitzer, when asked to define "news," famously said it was, "that which is apt to be talked about."
By that measure, a new 4,000-word investigative article in Los Angeles Magazine that digs into how the city of Santa Barbara's retail recreational marijuana licenses were awarded, represents about a month's worth of news for denizens of City Hall.
It also ruined our weekend, but we never complain.
The piece, by veteran television writer and novelist Mitchell Kriegman, was Topic A over the weekend in local political, media and municipal circles, whose inhabitants variously buzzed, pushed back or expressed shocked surprise from the moment it began appearing in email boxes early Saturday morning.
"It's about the angels and demons of cannabis," Kriegman told Newsmakers in a Sunday interview. "It's a bundle of questions to which I attempted to get the answers as best as I could."
Titled "In Sleepy Santa Barbara, a City Hall Insider Raises Eyebrows" (womp, womp for the double cliche headline), the piece delves into the main events and key characters involved in crafting the city's 2018 retail license law, adding a new chapter to the saga of how Santa Barbara County has been transformed into a cannabis capital of California following the 2016 passage of Proposition 64, which legalized pot in the state.
Depending on one's political perspective -- and proximity to the opaque process by which the disputed licenses were handed out - the story either chronicles a major city scandal or is a hit piece, reflecting personal grievances and hidden agendas from unhappy business owners, former and current city executives, and police union types targeting City Administrator Paul Casey, former Police Chief Lori Luhnow and her top aide, Anthony Wagner.
Amid multiple story lines, inferential allegations of corruption and innuendo (at one point Wagner is compared to "a lesser character in one of The Godfather movies" -- sheesh), the through line of the piece is Wagner, who came to Santa Barbara from San Diego in 2017 to serve as a police department spokesman and top aide to former Chief Luhnow, and subsequently led the team of city bureaucrats that crafted the pot ordinance and awarded three retail licenses after a lengthy, complicated and secretive process.
Wagner declined to comment on the article to Newsmakers; he described it to friends as a "salacious hit job" that misstates and misrepresents his background, actions and relationship to two individuals involved in the licensing affair, telling them that he has a trove of documentary evidence to uphold his integrity.
Hours after the article appeared online, mayoral candidates James Joyce ("I am calling for a referral to the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury" he said in a press release) and Deborah Schwartz (she told us "an independent, out-of-town investigation" was necessary) called for official, follow-up examination of its main assertions. Others inside City Hall, however, took issue over matters of accuracy with a host of claimed factual contentions in the piece, as well as its suggestion that the licensing process was improper.
"Our city attorney did review the procedures related to granting the recreational cannabis licenses and found them to be fair," Mayor Cathy Murillo told Newsmakers.
"However, we are looking at a range of options to improve the licensing process up to and including an independent review of allegations in the article," she added. "Serious allegations were raised in the article and we are taking them seriously."
City Administrator Paul Casey told us that he would confer with interim Police Chief Barney Melekian before commenting further.
"I'll be speaking with Chief Melekian on Monday," Casey said via email, "and we will have a formal statement after that."
Here are seven takeaway questions about the Los Angeles Magazine piece.
Who is Mitchell Kriegman? Kriegman is a 68-year old television writer, novelist, director and producer with a long list of credits that includes a stint on "Saturday Night Live" and '90s and 'oughts TV hits including "Clarissa Explains It All," "Bear in the Big Blue House" and "The Book of Pooh." In a more recent foray into journalism, he wrote stories for the Independent and the Montecito Journal, where he began working on the just-published story last year, before moving to Portugal in July, where he finished the piece and shopped it to the magazine.
So why isn't it in the Montecito Journal? MoJo editor-in-chief Gwyn Lurie worked closely with Kriegman during the start of his reporting and on several early drafts of a story, she told us, but wanted to assign a second reporter, based here, to work with him after he left for Europe; the two disagreed about the arrangement, she added, leaving him free to place the story elsewhere: "I didn't want to publish that kind of bombshell without having control over the reporting," Gwyn said.
Where's the other side? Of the three key current or former city officials on whom the piece focuses -- Casey, Luhnow and Wagner -- none are quoted in response to the most specific and substantive claims and assertions; Kriegman said they did not respond to "multiple" efforts seeking comment. However, Casey told us that he "made myself available to (Kriegman) on a number of occasions last spring or summer...when he was working for the Montecito Journal, including a very long phone interview (over one hour), response to extensive email questions, and a very extensive public records request that he submitted covering five years of communications"; Luhnow referred Kriegman's email inquiries to City Attorney Ariel Calonne, whom Mitchell said did not respond; Wagner said he never got a call.
Was the story fact checked? Kriegman told us via Zoom that the magazine fact checked his piece to make sure that everything was "scrupulously" nailed down. However, others pointed out inaccuracies that ranged from silly to substantive:
In the opening lines, Kriegman described Santa Barbara as having a "gentile" style, rather than "genteel" (the description has since been changed in the online version of the piece);
in recounting Mayor Murillo's actions during last summer's Black Lives Matter protest at police headquarters, the story says she drove there in an "armored SWAT vehicle" but she says she drove her own Honda Accord;
In reporting on Luhnow, Kriegman points to her $392,054.83 compensation package as excessive -- in fact it ranks in the bottom-third of a list of comparable size cities; the piece also critically notes that the ex-chief frequently took three day weekends and was absent during major crises, including the Thomas Fire; however, like all city employees, she was required to take every other Friday off, as a cost saving measure, and close associates sent us photographs that show her on duty at key times during the disaster;
In reporting on Wagner, the story misstates the circumstances of his hiring and also says it was "most curious" that he was given a badge and police ID although he did not have law enforcement training; in fact many civilian employees at SBPD are provided such identification, according to City Hall sources.
In reporting on Casey, the story takes aim at his "unilateral ability" to make decisions on a permitting issue; in fact, under Santa Barbara's weak mayor form of government, doing so is the administrator's responsibility and entirely within his authority.
In reporting on legal fallout from implementation of the licensing ordinance, the story highlights and quotes at length a lawsuit filed against the city by one of the losing applicants; it fails to note that the city prevailed in court and the plaintiff was forced to pay its legal fees.
So what's the scandal? As a substantive matter, the most troubling event chronicled in the magazine story is the sale of one of only three city retail licenses granted by the city; the company that won the award, Golden State Greens, never opened its operation on Upper State Street but instead flipped the license, for which Kriegman reports was a profit estimated in the millions of dollars, to a Florida firm called Jushi, which did not go through the city's original vetting process; The puzzling transaction was first reported and detailed by Josh Molina in Noozhawk last summer.
Was the ex-chief really a slacker? The story also reports critically on Luhnow making recent regular trips to San Diego and staying at her house in Coronado; according to close friends, she was renting out the place and didn't have access to it until July 2019; at that point through 2020, most of her trips south were due to receiving cancer treatments, from which she would recover at her house.
What about the mayor's race? As a political matter, the portrayal of City Hall presented in the article is a net negative for Mayor Murillo. and two of her opponents -- Joyce and Schwartz -- already have jumped on it. The fourth candidate in the race, ex-councilman Randy Rowse, was serving at City Hall during most of the time described in the article; he declined to comment.
Bottom line: More to come on this one.