Fresno County supervisors don’t vote on Coalinga cannabis oil plan

The Claremont Custody Center in Coalinga is the proposed site of a cannabis oil plant.
The Claremont Custody Center in Coalinga is the proposed site of a cannabis oil plant. Fresno Bee Staff Photo

Fresno County supervisors did not take a stand Tuesday on a cannabis oil manufacturing plant proposed in Coalinga, despite opposition from the county’s top law enforcement officer.

Sheriff Margaret Mims spoke out against the cannabis oil plant, but supervisors couldn’t find a compromise position.

Instead, supervisors said they would attempt to learn more about the project, which would be in the former Claremont Custody Center. The highly secure, 500-inmate jail closed in 2011 when the state stopped funding it.

Some board members plan to attend a workshop March 30 in Coalinga to examine plans for the cannabis oil plant.

“Fresno County has a policy of zero tolerance in place, and that’s something that is good for law enforcement. It’s good for public safety, and it’s good public policy,” Supervisor Andreas Borgeas said.

Borgeas said the county doesn’t want to tell Coalinga officials how to move forward. But Supervisors Henry R. Perea and Debbie Poochigian said the plans are still under wraps, so opposition may not be the best course to take right now.

“For me, there’s no issue on the table,” Perea said. “The Coalinga City Council is exploring the possibility of doing something that there’s nothing to act on, and the county would have been imposing its will at a time when it wasn’t necessary.”

Poochigian said the county didn’t need to get involved in Coalinga’s affairs.

“This is their business, and just because we can doesn’t mean we should,” she said. “This is just like the things we complain about with Sacramento sticking their nose into our business and telling us what we should do.”

But Mims said that transportation of cannabis oil from the plant could become a law enforcement issue for the county and the state, whose officers patrol nearby Interstate 5.

“Now is the time to try and influence their decision in a way that’s most positive toward public safety,” she said. “Medical marijuana was not meant to be a for-profit enterprise, and that’s where this is going.”

Borgeas and Board Chairman Buddy Mendes will attend a Coalinga City Council workshop March 30 to learn more about the proposal.

Coalinga City Council Member Patrick Keough, who didn’t attend Tuesday’s meeting, was encouraged that supervisors took no action.

“When they came together they realized they really didn’t have all the facts or (hadn’t) reached out to the council members in Coalinga,” he said.

During the workshop in two weeks, he said, county officials can learn more about the project and avoid making rash assumptions.

“I was just happy they didn’t make any forceful, authoritarian decision,” Keough said.

Ultimately, he said, the City Council will do what’s best for the city. But if the sheriff has ideas to help make the facility operate better, Coalinga leaders want to hear them, Keough said.

“Be a partner with us so we can do this the best way possible and help the city prevent problems before they happen,” he said.

Supervisors also opposed a plan by a 3-2 vote to hire a hearing officer for medical marijuana cultivation citation appeals. They will continue to serve as the hearing board. Supervisors Poochigian, Perea and Brian Pacheco voted against it.

The idea was floated as a way to get more consistency in decisions on the county’s citations for its $1,000 per plant fines.

Mendes and Borgeas were startled by Perea’s vote. In previous discussion, he supported appointing a hearing officer.

“There’s not a single person who wasn’t surprised,” Borgeas said. “He was one of the fiercest critics of how we do business.”

Borgeas said Perea’s move was politically motivated.

“It seems that Supervisor Perea deliberately switched his two-year voting record on this matter because he is angry that two colleagues in particular who are supporting his opponent, Lee Brand, for mayor” of Fresno, Borgeas said. Borgeas and Mendes have endorsed Brand.

Mendes said that the supervisors were inconsistent as a hearing board when determining fines for violators.

“It actually makes us weaker on crime because we’re more liable to make a mistake than a hearing officer,” he said. “That person would be an officer of the court.”

Perea said he opposed the plan because he didn’t want the sheriff or supervisors to appear soft on crime.

He said he was open to the hearing officer idea but was swayed by the sheriff’s argument that marijuana orchards being discovered now are much smaller than when enforcement of the ordinance started in 2014.

“I think Sheriff Mims made a compelling argument that we have come a long way in Fresno County, and we don’t want to send mixed signals,” Perea said. “It could be seen as a retreat on public safety.”

In a related matter, supervisors decriminalized the medical marijuana ordinance by removing the potential for a misdemeanor charge in response to a 5th District Court of Appeal ruling. County Counsel Dan Cederborg said the county has not filed charges against any violators of the medical marijuana cultivation ban.

In other action, supervisors also approved a contract to allow the sheriff’s office to dispatch calls for the Kingsburg Police Department. Kingsburg becomes the sixth city to contract with the county, Mims said.

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin