On March 3, voters across Santa Barbara County’s First District, including residents of the Carpinteria Valley, will cast their ballot for the area’s supervisor. This year, in a hotly contested race, the Democratic incumbent Das Williams faces a competitive challenger from his own party, Santa Barbara School Board member Laura Capps.
At the candidates’ fourth debate held in the runup to the election, and hosted by the Santa Barbara Independent, Williams and Capps articulated their positions on major issues, including cannabis, homelessness, affordable housing and climate change. Throughout the debate, the candidates clashed over issues, with Carpinteria’s cannabis industry repeatedly sparking discord.
“As long as I can remember, I had a profound sense of how wrong the world was,” said Williams in his opening statement. “I grew up in poverty and I had that sense, not only in economics but also in environmental issues.” Williams, who has been endorsed by the Sierra Club and has a masters from UCSB in Environmental Science, said he’d worked throughout his career to implement sustainable programs, including spearheading Santa Barbara County’s recent union with four other Coastal California counties to form a Renewable Energy Agency. Additionally, Williams stated that the county needs to build facilities that reduce emissions along with only purchasing electric cars for their fleet—a program already implemented.
Capps on the other hand, who has not held a city or county seat, but has worked throughout her career with high profile public officials, including President Bill Clinton, Senator Edward M. Kennedy and Secretary John Kerry, expressed that there needed to be more urgency when it comes to environmental concerns. “I think the problem is we don’t have a sense of urgency at the top,” she said, “if you look at the amount of time the Board spends on issues, it’s six times more on cannabis over climate change.” Capps also noted that since she joined the Santa Barbara School Board, they have increased the amount of solar buildings in the district.
Since the start of her campaign, Capps has criticized Williams for taking contributions from the cannabis industry while policies were being written. “Cannabis has been funding these campaigns,” said Capps at the debate, noting that Williams received $60,000 from the cannabis industry during his candidacy and first term. “His biggest donors are affiliated with cannabis. This is about special interest influence on policy.”
Williams disagreed vehemently with Capps’ characterization, saying, “What Laura is characterizing as cannabis money (comes from) Peter Spurling, the guy who came up with the money to preserve the Ellwood Bluffs and every environmental cause in town. According to Williams, Spurling’s ties to cannabis are limited to his donations to the medical marijuana legalization campaign.
For Capps though, the time and resources that have been put into cannabis are too much. “It holds us back, it’s why we’re not dealing with homelessness and climate change… (instead) we’re dealing with cannabis.”
For his part, Williams recognized that “some things could have been done better and made enforcement easier.” But he was clear that he stands by his intentions in implementing the permitting process and establishing an enforcement arm of the government: “I’ve always been for a commonsense approach to permitting marijuana in a manner to try and wound the black market. The black market in Southern California is tied up in the cartels... this is a righteous cause… We are dealing with people who are really bad and holding them accountable to justice.”
In the past 14 months, 59 operations have been raided and the county has seized more marijuana than the rest of the state combined, noted Williams, saying, “That is not us giving these people preferential treatment. That is us coming down very hard on people stepping out of the rules.”
Carpinteria agriculture and cannabis
A question from the public asked the candidates to explain their positions regarding Carpinteria avocado farmers who have faced economic impacts from not being able to spray their crops due to strict pesticide restrictions regulating neighboring cannabis cultivation facilities.
Capps criticized Williams and the Board of Supervisors for not conducting an economic impact study to evaluate the effect that cannabis would have on local vintners and avocado farmers. “This is a billion-dollar county,” said Capps, “We should be acting with due diligence. You don’t just shoot fire and aim.” Capps also criticized the county’s setback limits for allowing cannabis growers to operate close to schools and youth facilities.
“Our setbacks for marijuana are larger than our setbacks for liquor stores, adult bookstores and gun shops,” responded Williams. “If your reaction is, as one of our planning commissioners said, ‘Well, but this is worse!’ I simply don’t agree with that. Our setbacks are larger than is (required by) state law. And ironically, if you enlarged those setbacks, you would not take out the operations that have been scofflaws and created a lot of nuisance. But you would take out a lot of operations that have been paying taxes and living up to our rules and funding our enforcement.”
Williams also stated that when it comes to avocado growers not being able to spray pesticides from aerial helicopters (also nearby schools and residential areas), he’s fine with that. “I don’t think that continuing to spray a known carcinogen from aerial helicopters next to the high school is the right thing for our community in the long run. I want a transition that will allow avocado (growers) to survive and thrive. One possibility is going organic, my preference, and the other is hand application, which is possible.”
On the issue of housing, Capps wants to target the underlying issue of poverty. “We obviously need more housing… So, I’ve focused on poverty. People can’t afford to put roofs over their heads. We need to help people get money in their pocket.” Capps advocated for more solution-based discussions and studying what other communities are doing that’s working, such as “renters’ choice” which helps subsidize security deposits.
Williams pushed that an overall cultural shift is required, saying that “back in the old days,” residents didn’t want more housing because they didn’t want traffic, “now we have more traffic because we don’t have housing.” One of the most egregious implications of scarce housing, noted Williams, is a dramatically changing demographic, where young people and Latinos are moving away. One solution Williams offered: building more housing on county campuses for the local workforce.
Santa Barbara County now has 800 units of permanent supportive housing, a program that coupled with outreach, does alleviate homelessness in the area, said Williams, also noting that these programs require a lot of work.
Capps agreed that homelessness is a serious issue, however she expressed that she doesn’t think the supervisors are doing enough. “In our public schools, one out of eight kids are homeless,” said Capps. “What correlates is funding. If you look to see who’s funding the people making decisions, that’s the priorities. And homelessness has not been a priority… I wish there was a lobbyist for the homeless.”
Key to Capps’ platform is campaign finance reform. Capps has advocated that contributions should be capped and should be illegal to take from any entity that has a decision in front of the board. “Money… is hindering our progress,” she stated. Williams stated that he would support contribution limits but that we also “need to have public financing for it to be true reform.”
In the response and rebuttal regarding campaign donations, Capps again criticized Williams for donations from Carpinteria cannabis growers. Williams defended his decision to take those contributions—which he has now stopped accepting—stating that most of that money came from the Van Wingerden family. The Van Winderdens, Williams said, are “folks that have been farmers for years and years and have funded the Boys & Girls Club, Girls Inc. and every good cause in Carpinteria. These are farmers and local business owners, they’re not pariahs.”