Tehama and Trinity County Seals – Tehama’s has the signature of the artist. What’s up with that?
Let’s start off with a little update on “Lettergate”, the unintentional Brown Act violation committed by the Tehama County Board of Supervisors on the advice of County Counsel. (Background story here. ) I listened to the meeting live because I was dying to hear how it would be spun. It was not an attempt to do a back door deal or avoid transparency to the public. We are used to those things happening with past boards and it’s easy to jump to conclusions. This board wants to do the right thing.
Here’s how it went, in a nutshell. Chairman Bill Moule wanted another vote to “correct” the vote that had failed the week prior. He does this when a vote doesn’t go his way. That idea was quickly nixed.
Supervisor Matt Hansen was curious about how the board could vote on time sensitive items in the future. Supervisor Candy Carlson suggested a couple of ways – one being to call an Emergency Meeting that’s open to the public. She admitted the board had made a mistake by taking action and wanted to move on. How refreshing!
Supervisor Pati Nolen agreed with Carlson. Supervisor John Leach was quiet during most of the discussion, but ended the debate by reading the actual description of Board Matters right off the agenda. “BOARD MATTERS – Discussion of new items for further study/future agendas – Board Matters is an opportunity for one Board member to present a topic to the full Board and County Departments and allow the Board to express consensus that staff should be directed to address the issue and bring it back to the full Board as an agendized matter. This is not a time for the Board to address the merits or express their opinions on the issue but solely to decide if staff should expend resources in researching and preparing documents for consideration at a public Board meeting. More complex issues may result in a future study session.” I don’t see the part where the board can vote…sorry, ”achieve consensus” to send a letter with the Chair’s signature on it.
County Administrator Gabriel Hydrick appears to believe it was okay to send the letter and then have it “ratified” later. No. That ain’t how it works.
County Counsel Margaret Long insisted staff could be directed at any time during a meeting. I agree, but exactly what can they be directed to do? Sending a letter is an action, so not that. This is precisely the type of bad legal counsel the firm of Prentice/Long has been dishing up to all its clients, as we’re finding out.
Ms. Long and her firm also serve as Trinity’s County Counsel and The Trinity County Grand Jury just released a scathing report on the firm. You can read the whole thing here – but here’s a quick summary.
The Trinity Grand Jury received an anonymous complaint expressing concerns about the role of County Counsel (Prentice/Long) in what the author alleged to be a series of poor decisions regarding cannabis licensing. The complaint cites one specific instance in which County Counsel allegedly advised the BOS to refuse an offer to settle litigation for less than a tenth of what the County ultimately settled for after losing the suit. The prolonged litigation allowed Prentice/Long to bill for more hours and the Grand Jury believes that was intentional and routine.
The Grand Jury found that the board of supervisors, under the direction of County Counsel, relied heavily on closed sessions and attorney client privilege to conceal its deliberations, reporting out only 5 decisions on over 200 litigation cases. They also consistently failed to comply with CEQA requirements when issuing cannabis licenses.
You may recall – but probably don’t because I barely did – a column that appeared in this space in August of 2022 . It was about a case filed against Trinity County by the Trinity Action Association, a grass-roots group which alleged the county was not complying with CEQA rules for commercial cannabis licenses. Yes, they have those there. A judge ruled in favor of the county, but TAA appealed and the supes voted in Closed Session to settle out of court for $95,000. A check to TAA was mailed and cashed before the public knew, because the action reported out was “direction to staff”. When the vote to “ratify” came to open session, it didn’t pass. Just like Lettergate! Apparently, ignoring the Brown Act is just one of the many services offered by Prentice/Long. Trinity County eventually had to pay $339,000 to TAA because of poor legal advice.
The Trinity Supervisors discussed the GJ Report. Chairwoman Jill Cox sought legal advice from another source, because asking County Counsel for advice on a critical report about itself was…awkward? Guess who she asked instead? Jim Underwood, attorney for TAA in their suit against the county. How do we know that? Because Prentice/Long released hundreds of emails to and from Cox in response to an anonymous public records request. The citizens of Trinity are divided over which affront was more heinous. Cox conferring with the opposing attorney or the private email dump? Pick your poison.
Prentice/Long has been under contract as County Counsel for Trinity County since 2015, one year before Prop. 64 legalized commercial cannabis. One can only assume they wrote or helped write Trinity’s cannabis ordinance. The Planning Commission created a cannabis division to process licenses, and that process apparently didn’t include proper environmental review, which triggered the TAA suit. Eventually all local licenses were frozen, and hundreds of farmers were caught in limbo. They had state licenses, but not local, which put them out of compliance due to the inability of the county to get its act together.
Fast forward to May 2, 2023. The Trinity County Sheriff’s Department and Cal Fire conducted a sweep of eight “limbo” farms, even though the state and local cannabis regulation authorities had assured the farmers they were still operating legally as long as they had their state licenses. The sheriff had a list of those half-licensed farms, obtained warrants and entered the properties with a major crimes unit in tow, which is insane. Growing cannabis without a license is not a criminal offense, so TCSO shouldn’t even have been involved. A Cal Fire employee shot and killed a tethered dog at one farm. Video of the dog killing surfaced online and spread quickly, especially after actor and cannabis advocate Woody Harrelson shared it. 60,000 Likes overnight. Not Kardashian numbers, but pretty respectable for a Boomer.
It appears the sheriff just took the list of half-legal farms and got to work, ignoring the hundreds of outright illegal grows in the county. In fact, a county inspector had visited the dog’s family in February of this year, so they were actively working with the county. I’m not saying the arrests and dog shooting were Prentice/Long’s fault, but they clearly had a hand in setting up the failed system. A general distaste for CEQA compliance is rampant in Tehama County, too. You can read more about the Trinity fuster-cluck on trinityjournal.com and exposetrinitycounty.com. Expose Trinity has a Facebook page, too. Make a batch of popcorn.
Now we turn our gaze to the north, where Prentice/Long was hired to oversee cannabis abatement in Siskiyou County in the summer of 2021, when illegal grows had reached crisis level. According to PL’s August 2021 newsletter, they were hired to assist “Siskiyou County in developing an effective strategy for citing illegal cannabis growers, monitoring their adherence to state and local ordinances, and carrying out injunctions when necessary.” They announced their new CoCo gig with Tehama County in the same issue.
Less than a year later, the ACLU and Asian Law Caucus filed a class action lawsuit against Siskiyou County, alleging the county and sheriff are attempting to “drive a disfavored racial minority” out of the county by engaging “in a sweeping campaign to harass and intimidate Hmong and other Asian Americans.” Yikes. The Trinity farmer whose dog was shot is also Hmong. I guess they’re the only mom and pop farmers still able to turn a profit growing cannabis these days.
With all this drama, is it even possible for Margaret Long and her firm to adequately serve any of the jurisdictions they are currently under contract with? When Tehama first hired Prentice/Long, it was explained that the half million a year contract would save us money in the long run because we’d have an entire firm at our disposal, thereby eliminating the outsourcing of most legal services. That sounded like a great idea to me, but it hasn’t turned out that way. In 2021 we spent $1,150,589.15 on outside legal services. In 2022 it shot up to $1,702,443.70. Over half a million dollars more, although we did save former County Counsel Richard Stout’s salary. Say what you will about Stout, at least he wasn’t cheating on us with other jurisdictions. Maybe it’s time to admit the experiment has failed and hire one person whose only focus is Tehama. You can have them, Trinity. If you still want them.