Laura Capps called out First District Supervisor Das Williams on Wednesday for taking $62,000 from pot growers while crafting Santa Barbara County’s cannabis ordinance, as she proposed a broad package of campaign finance and public integrity reforms.
“I’m raising the bar on ethics,” Capps said at an event outside the county administration building, where she was joined by prominent supporters.
“We need to change the way business is done in this building,” she added. “Special interests have too much power in how decisions get made.”
In a response to Newsmakers, Williams called her five-point proposal “a poorly thought out political stunt” that would damage the ability of public safety unions to participate in county government.
Since June, when an L.A. Times investigation revealed Santa Barbara County has become California's capital of cannabis cultivation since passage of its marijuana ordinance, some district residents have loudly and consistently assailed his crucial role in its passage.
Defending the law, which he insisted includes“some of the strongest regulations on the cannabis industry in the state,” he called Capps’ attack a bid “to manufacture a controversy in order to advance her political ambitions.”
State of play. It was the first sharp exchange between the rivals in the contest for the First District seat on the Board of Supervisors, as Capps sought to frame the controversy over Williams’ central role in writing the county’s pot ordinance as symptomatic of an underlying problem that erodes public trust in local government.
Within the district, public outrage over the new pot law – from odors to the size, scope and location of cannabis greenhouses and grows – has largely been confined to Carpinteria, where individuals and businesses formerly working in the now-collapsed cut flower industry have turned to marijuana as a cash crop.
In setting forth the ethics proposal she dubbed the "Make Government Accountable Plan," including a prohibition on contributions from anyone with a matter before the supervisors, Capps seeks to position herself more widely as a champion of reform and good government who is fighting to reduce the influence of money in local politics.
As a supervisor, she said, she would seek support from colleagues to pass legislation to strictly limit individual contributions, pointing to Ventura County’s $750 ceiling as one model; impose voluntary limits on overall campaign spending; require more frequent public disclosure of donations and establish an independent Ethics Commission, where taxpayers could take complaints about perceived conflicts of interest.
Pay to play? But it is the proposed ban on supervisors taking money from individuals or interest groups who come before the board that quickly emerged as the most controversial element of the plan.
She proposed outlawing any campaign contributions during most of a supervisors’ four-year term, limiting donations to one year before an election, and 90 days after. Beyond that, she called for barring “all contributions from anyone with business before the Board for the entire period of consideration, from proposal until approval or denial.”
After her event, Capps provided Newsmakers with a spread sheet detailing names, dates and amounts of Williams’ cannabis industry campaign donors and donations, pointing to the timing of large amounts shortly before key decisions before the board.
“My opponent took $62,000 from the cannabis industry while writing the ordinance,” she said. “Anyone would wonder about a direct connection.”
“It’s a fact.” Das defended his policy and political actions in the marijuana controversy, saying that the county’s regulations are “far stronger than state law – that is a fact.”
He criticized Laura for throwing shade on upstanding members of the local agricultural community for purely self-interested reasons.
“I stand by my record,” he told Newsmakers. “Cannabis and the donations I have received (are) all from local, reputable and lawful operators.”
Running with the support of key public safety unions, Williams added that as a substantive matter, Capps’ proposal would damage the political standing of law enforcement officers and firefighters.
The proposed ban, he said, “would prevent our community’s firefighters and deputy sheriffs, some of the most active supporters of every member of the Board of Supervisors, from participating in politics.”
“I’d like to enact real campaign reform, like contribution limits and public financing,“ he said, “but not a system that advantages the interests of her donors against our firefighters.”
(Update: A few hours after this piece posted, Neil Gowing, president of the Deputy Sheriff's Association, texted us a statement opposing the Capps proposal. He said it would "force us to choose between advocating for our community" before the board on policy issues such as "improving emergency response" and taking political positions in campaigns by supporting candidates. "We believe that undermining the constitutional rights of any individual is inherently wrong," he said.
To which Capps responded that she "has supported labor and the rights of workers for decades" and "honor(s) and respect(s) the service of the Deputy Sheriffs, all our public safety workers and first responders." However, she said that as a school board member, she has "advocated and voted for pay increases each and every year for our teachers and staff based on the invaluable service they provide to our community -- it never even crossed my mind that their ability to contribute to campaigns would be relevant").
Faces in the crowd. Among those who appeared with Capps are her event were philanthropist and publisher Sara Miller McCune; former Supervisor Susan Rose; Carp school board member Rogello Delgado; Rev. Anne Howard; Dr. Jules Zimmer; Carpinterians Lionel and Dori Neff and Santa Barbara school district parents Alan Gallegos and Marcy Wimbish.
For those keeping score at home, it’s 115 days until the election.
Images: Laura Capps displays a copy of her ethics plan; Das Williams; Capps flanked by supporters at the County Building event; Sara Miller McCune and Rev. Anne Howard listen to Capps.
All photos courtesy of Paul Wellman/Santa Barbara Independent.