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Board approves hiring bonus for Ag Commissioner

Separate images featuring vineyards, goats, logs, apples fishing boats and cattle to illustrate agricultural products.
Mendocino County 2021 crop report.
Agricultural scenes from Mendocino County.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on February 27 to offer a hiring bonus to entice an Ag Commissioner to head up the ag department. The county has been without an ag commissioner since 2022. This puts farmers and customers of any business that uses scales or other measuring devices at a disadvantage, because the Ag Commissioner also serves as the sealer of weights and measures.

Devon Boer, Executive Director of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau, said the industry has been noticing the empty seat. “I’ve definitely had a pretty significant uptick of our membership coming in and expressing their concern with the state of the Ag Department,” she said; “of not having a commissioner in place for some time.”

And the county could be at risk of losing reimbursements from the state to carry out programs that only a qualified Ag Commissioner can properly certify. Deputy CEO Cherie Johnson summarized why she believes it’s critical to fill the role soon, warning that, “If the position is not filled, the county will begin to lose access to critical state funding for the department's programs. This position is very specialized and requires licenses and certificates that are issued by the state to individuals…There is a very limited number of qualified applicants throughout the state.”

The hiring bonus on offer is $40,000, to be paid out over three years. The agenda item also includes a $20,000 hiring bonus for an Assistant Ag Commissioner, but Johnson said the county is not planning to hire someone to fill that role.

In an interview later in the week, Supervisor Glenn McGourty elaborated on some of the reimbursement opportunities the county could be missing without an Ag Commissioner. One is unclaimed fuel tax. “The state holds that money, and then they reimburse the county through a couple of programs,” McGourty explained; “Most of them centered around pesticide use enforcement. That’s a couple hundred thousand dollars at least.” This is partly how the county pays the staff of the ag department, rather than relying solely on the general fund.

McGourty said only the licensed Ag Commissioner can sign up for state-funded programs like nursery inspections and setting traps for invasive species. “So, in some respects, again, Mendocino County is an agent for the state,” he emphasized. “That’s how it’s designed to be. You have to have an Ag Commissioner to be the linkage to the state to get their programs running. No one else can do it except the Ag Commissioner’s office.”

Boer has a sense of urgency. “I think there's a lot at stake, with potentially losing significant funding coming from the California Department of Food and Ag and other programs,” she told the Board. “Not just that are impactful to agriculture, but to our weights and measures and all our constituency that depends upon those, whether that’s grocery scales, gas stations, the cannabis department…Anything that's going to be dependent upon that weights and measures department is going to see an impact, potentially, as well. If we had a major pest issue, like we did several years back, I really don't have faith that our county could overcome that…So there is a significant issue there with not having a commissioner, that you are well aware of.”

Supervisor Dan Gjerde thinks the problem is largely due to the state’s elaborate set of requirements for a job that is key for agricultural economies. He’d like to see fewer certifications and more qualified applicants. He issued an invitation to the populace at large, saying, “Any members of the public that would like to join the board in lobbying to change the state law are welcome. You know, it’s state law that requires that this one single department head have what I would call three dozen merit badges in obscure things that no one person really needs to know…So maybe you can get someone who has all the merit badges. Or maybe you can hire a good manager. But to find someone who's both a good manager and has all the merit badges is almost impossible, unless you're willing to pay ridiculous sums of money.”

The county had a string of chaotic relationships with Ag Commissioners during the rollout of 10a17, the cannabis cultivation ordinance.Chuck Morse served as Ag Commissioner from 2012 until January of 2017. His assistant, Diane Curry, served in an interim capacity until Joe Moreo, of Modoc County, stepped in for a total of five days in March of 2018. Curry, by then a fully qualified Ag Commissioner, took over and was quickly ousted amid cannabis-infused turmoil at the end of that month. Harinder Grewal served for a year, then embarked on a lengthy legal battle with the county. Jim Donnelly served briefly, then Mendocino county shared a commissioner with Sonoma County. McGourty attributes the historical chaos to efforts at the time to place cannabis regulation under the ag department, where it no longer resides. He also believes the high cost of housing remains a significant stumbling block. Even recruiting companies have not been able to turn up a viable candidate.

Boer offered to put her Farm Bureau contacts to use, and invited collaboration from the county. “I would encourage and welcome outreach from the CEO's office,” she said, adding, “To date, I don't believe that has happened…To work with us at Farm Bureau and have a conversation about what's been done, what hasn't been done, and how we can potentially use our contacts through the state organizations that we work with, to look for a solution.”

Local News
Sarah Reith came to Mendocino County in 2008 and worked as a reporter and freelancer, joining KZYX as a community news reporter in 2017. She became the KZYX News Director in March, 2023.