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Board discusses cannabis equity grant program

Game tiles from Flip Words, a Scrabble-inspired word game, spell the phrase "Cannabis Equity."
Game tiles from Flip Words, a Scrabble-inspired word game, spell the phrase "Cannabis Equity."

August 17 — A consent calendar item on the agenda for this week’s Board of Supervisors meeting revived concerns about mismanagement and delays at the equity cannabis grant program, which was the topic of a recent Grand Jury report.

And cannabis issues will now be directed to the General Government committee, a standing committee that meets every other month under Brown Act requirements and will bring proposals to the full board. Cannabis advocates have long requested a standing committee, but will now work with two supervisors who have not been serving on the more limited ad hoc.

The equity grant is a state-funded direct grant program that is supposed to provide some assistance to people in the cannabis industry who can prove they were harmed by the war on drugs. In 2020, the county received $2.2 million in round one funding. It has also received roughly $800,000 in round two funding. Ten percent of those funds can be used for administrative costs.

On Tuesday, the Board was asked to approve an amendment to the contract with the company hired to administer the grant, Elevate Impact, by over $83,000 in back pay, for work performed between February and August of this year. The expectation was that the contractor would do 95% of the work administering the funds, but that number has been closer to 50%.

Five checks have found their way into the hands of applicants, and 47 approved grant applications are under review at County Counsel’s office, to make sure the funds won’t be misused .

Supervisor John Haschak pulled the item for a more fulsome discussion, saying, “dealing with this amount of people and almost $300,000 of administration and untold amounts of administration from our cannabis department, because we’re taking on half of the workload…I would just like to see the county compensated, rather than these outside entities.”

Monique Ramirez, a grant recipient, reeled off a list of difficulties she’s encountered with the program. “I have a really hard time seeing us potentially give more money to the LEEP program when they have not effectively done their job to this point,” she said. “Back in February, I submitted a very lengthy memo about the equity program, detailing, I believe there were 123 emails with the correspondence in the back and forth that I had to go through just to get to the point of finally getting my check…even my check wasn’t issued correctly.”

Haschak had a number of complaints about the contract with Elevate Impact. “The county is expending time and resources on these equity grants,” he declared. “But we do need to get the equity grants out. It’s been way too long, and it’s been way too micromanaged.” When Supervisor Ted Williams asked him if he would be willing to bring back an agenda item with a proposal, Haschak said he thought the cannabis department should bring back a proposal to the Board, “because I don’t understand the contract. None of us understand the contract with Elevate. We haven’t seen any information for it.”

The Grand Jury report, called “Building the Airplane While It’s Flying,” found that Elevate Impact, the contractor hired by the county, lacks experience in rural capital improvements projects. Cannabis Department Director Kristin Nevedal said the contractor does not have a team of planners on staff, and that the county didn’t have enough information about the applications in advance to realize that planners would be necessary.

She also said the program had been on hold for months, starting in April. “It was on hold for three months,” she said, “during which time we could not proceed with county reviews. We proceeded with department approval, but we couldn’t proceed with moving those proposals through Cobblestone,” the county’s multi-department contract management system.

The information about the pause was news to Michael Katz, the Executive Director of the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance, who also said that growers have long been trying to bring their parcels into compliance with CEQA. The earliest iterations of the program, he said, required the involvement of Planning and Building Services. In an interview, he lamented that from the beginning, “expert stakeholder input was not integrated to create a more successful program.”

To the question about whether or not the county will be able to pay itself for administering the grant, Nevedal said that, with the payments to Elevate Impact, the county was close to the $300,000 administrative cap that’s allowed for the $3 million in grant funds.

“WIthout the contract administrators, we would have to drastically staff up,” she said. “We do not have allocations for staff for grant purposes. Nor have we budgeted for staff for grant purposes…if the Board were to not proceed with the Elevate contract, we would have to cease processing equity applications until such time as we had allocations from the Board for staffing specific to this program.’

County Counsel Christian Curtis told the Board they had the option of shutting down the program. “If you’re looking to re-evaluate, you could just decide not to proceed with this program,” he said. “You could look at wrapping it up, rather than re-staffing or moving forward.”

Attorney and cannabis advocate Hannah Nelson said she thinks the answer is taking a hard look at the program and making it work. “The answer is to not stop a program, but rather, when millions and millions and millions of dollars are coming into the county, and being re-invested locally, it’s imperative that we look and see, how can we improve the system so it functions,” she urged the Board.

There was still some miscommunication near the end of the discussion, when CEO Darcie Antle and Nevedal each thought the other had been tasked to ask the Auditor-Controller to approve a special run of checks for the applicants who have been stuck in the system. If the money is not spent by the end of the month, the county could either be required to return it to the state or be ineligible for future grants.

Moments before the board voted to send the matter to the General Government committee, Antle broke into a supervisor’s request with a piece of news. “The special run for August 31st has been approved,” she announced.

The next General Government committee meeting is scheduled for October 17 at 1:30 pm.

Local News
Sarah Reith is the lead reporter for KZYX News. She joined the KZYX News team in 2017, and covers local politics, water, law enforcement and the arts in Mendocino County.