Cannabis Department Director resigns
Shortly before 10:00 yesterday morning, Mendocino County Supervisor Glenn McGourty reported from an unusual closed session before the regular Board of Supervisors meeting that, “The Board voted unanimously to accept the resignation of Director Nevedal.”
Cannabis Department Director Kristin Nevedal was hired two years ago this month as the cannabis program manager. She was recruited by Supervisor Ted Williams, who had high hopes for her ability to get applicants through a program fraught with frustrations since its inception. Prior to Nevedal, three ag commissioners, three cannabis program managers, and a Planning and Building Director also tried and failed to administer the cannabis ordinance. Applications have dragged on for years as state and county rules shift. Cultivators have run out of time, money, and hope. Only a bare minority have gotten their state licenses.
At their last meeting, Supervisors agreed to work with the state Department of Cannabis Control to streamline environmental reviews and help provisional licensees comply with state law.
Nevedal brought in significant grant money, most recently more than $17.5 million in Local Jurisdiction Assistance Grant Funds. But two weeks ago, the Board discussed a projected overage in the cannabis department of more than $600,000. And Supervisors learned that Nevedal had testified before a Senate Committee about an error she had made in reporting grant expenditures. At the time, Supervisor John Haschak expressed grave misgivings.
“That’s a $17.5 million dollar budget, and I’m just very concerned about the capacity of the Department to handle that budget,” he said. Yesterday, he said John Burkes, the head of Code Enforcement, and Deputy CEO Steve Dunnicliff have been working in the Cannabis Department “on process and procedures;” and will continue to do so over the next few months.
Cannabis attorney Hannah Nelson described herself as “cautiously optimistic” about the future of the cannabis department. She had high praise for John Burkes, especially his work with Code Enforcement. She said that under his leadership, the culture at that department has become one of educating cultivators and bringing them into compliance. “I think that that’s an attitude, in addition to his excellent mind for process-oriented efficiencies, that's needed to address some of the outstanding issues,” she said.
One of those issues is processing applications. The Board recently approved a $1.6 million contract with a company called 4Leaf to take on some of that work. They’ll be paid out of the Local Jurisdiction Assistance Grant Funds. All other disbursements from that grant and the equity program are on hold, according to an unsigned message yesterday from the Cannabis Department. Haschak said that twenty 4Leaf planners were supposed to start work with the county, but that only fourteen are available. They are supposed to be getting trained this week. “That process of evaluating the permits will be continuing,” he said. “Even though we have this other track of working with the State.”
He said state representatives have requested an environmental impact review for the state licensing program. “We need to move forward with that and try to do an EIR as quickly as possible so the state can do their environmental review,” he said, adding that the state is willing to give provisional license holders another year to get their annual licenses.
Long-time environmentalist Ellen Drell has questions about what it means to conduct an environmental impact review on the ordinance, which was approved in 2017 with a mitigated negative declaration. “Our ordinance has had an approved equivalent of sort of a low-level EIR, that was approved at the state level years ago,” she said. “So when I hear through the grapevine that the state will help us, but we have to do an EIR, my question is, on what? Because you don’t do EIR’s in a vacuum. An EIR is a review of the potential environmental impacts of a particular project. So the question that I would like to have answered is, what is the project? A brand new ordinance? I don’t know. So that’s something we should try to find out.”
Michael Katz, the Executive Director of the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance, reflected on the pressures Nevedal faced — and the challenges that cultivators faced during her tenure. “Yes, it’s a challenging ordinance,” he acknowledged; “but we have seen things develop, such as the vegetation modification program, the deprioritization, these different elements that were implemented that were not necessarily aligned with Board direction. And those challenges were significant.”
Katz prefers to focus on the future, though. “Separate from the resignation of Director Nevedal, there were other significant developments, including the passage of comprehensive local tax reform, and clarification of tree removal that will allow frozen applications to start moving forward,” he said. “So these changes are part of an ongoing effort by our local government to get the Mendocino cannabis program on track.”
Haschak said CEO Darcie Antle, County Counsel Christian Curtis, and Nevedal met with state representatives last Friday to discuss what a future collaboration between the state and the county will look like. As with so many other aspects of the cannabis program, he conceded that “There are a lot more questions than there are answers at this point.”