A $95,000 settlement agreement signed in August by all parties to the lawsuit of Trinity Action Association against Trinity County over its commercial cannabis licensing program was voided Tuesday when the Trinity County Board of Supervisors failed on a tie vote to ratify the Aug. 7 signature of board chairwoman Judy Morris on the agreement.
Ratification of the signature was scheduled for the board’s Oct. 1 consent agenda for routine items adopted by one roll call vote, but it was pulled for a separate discussion and vote by Sups. Keith Groves and John Fenley saying they’d been questioned about the closed session vote authorizing the settlement.
The agreement was signed by all parties for TAA and the county on Aug. 7, including attorneys for both sides, following an Aug. 6 closed session of the board to consider pending litigation. The report out of closed session was only that “direction was given to staff.”
A press release approved by both sides followed two days later saying settlement had been reached and disclosing some of the terms including the $95,000 to be paid by the county for TAA’s legal expenses. It appeared in The Trinity Journal on Aug. 14 when the newspaper began inquiring about the vote approving the settlement and asking for the agreement.
During yesterday’s meeting, partner attorney David Prentice was sitting in for Margaret Long as county counsel and said when a settlement is finalized in a closed session, the vote is reported out (as required under the Brown Act), “but that’s not what’s happening here. The vote is being finalized now.”
He said the county auditor would have no authority to sign the check to TAA unless a vote occurs to ratify the chairwoman’s signature, “and as far as I know, there was not a vote in closed session to approve the agreement, but direction was given to execute it. You didn’t have an agreement in front of you.”
Prentice said it is common practice to approve an agreement in concept and have staff bring it back at a later date for final approval. Until then, it’s not final, he said, and if it’s not final, no reporting is required. It was disclosed later in yesterday’s meeting that the settlement amount has been paid to TAA, a fact he was not aware of until then, but verified by County Administrative Officer Richard Kuhns.
Asked what would happen if the board voted not to ratify the signature, Prentice said TAA would have to give the money back which would likely take court action and initiate “a difficult process.”
Sup. Fenley asked Prentice if the ratification vote “will replace the vote we held in closed session on approving the agreement? You tried to indicate we did not approve the agreement. Will that vote ever be publicized?”
Prentice said board members didn’t have an agreement in front of them to approve, and that publicizing the vote would be up to the board.
At that point, Fenley refused to participate further, citing the Brown Act code section on reporting requirements for closed sessions and saying he believes the board is proceeding illegally. He left the room.
Sup. Judy Morris said board members cannot talk about closed session details and Sup. Keith Groves asked for county counsel to reiterate “we were not given a contract to approve in closed session.”
Prentice said TAA believes the settlement was final “in their mind, but I don’t believe they’re correct on that. We are where we are. This is the final on a settlement agreement. You approve it or not, and if not, then it’s not settled.”
Groves made a motion to ratify the chair’s signature on the agreement, saying to the large audience of primarily cannabis farmers strongly opposed to settling the lawsuit that “sometimes in life, holding your nose and doing what you know is wrong is still the best thing to do.” He indicated unwillingness to risk potentially $500,000 over the next two years fighting a lawsuit with the chances of losing “when we have a lot more work to do to move forward.”
Sup. Jeremy Brown made a subsequent motion to table the matter pending additional legal counsel he wanted to seek. He also asked for invoicing to prove TAA’s claims for hours spent by legal counsel and said, “this settlement is the lesser of two evils as it was explained to me, cheaper than what could be very expensive in the long run.”
The motion to table the matter failed by 3-1 with Brown the only vote in support.
Groves’ motion to ratify the signature on the settlement agreement failed on a 2-2 tie vote with Groves and Morris in support, and Brown and Bobbi Chadwick opposed.
Noting that not authorizing the signature on the agreement “raises a lot of issues,” Prentice requested a closed session agenda at the board’s next meeting to discuss what comes next.
The only representative in the room for TAA, John Letton of Douglas City, disputed several claims made, both during and after the meeting. He said invoices were submitted to the county’s legal counsel, Derek Cole, amounting to $150,000, but that TAA agreed to settle for $95,000 that has been received.
“Are we going to have to sue to uphold the agreement? We will win that fight,” he said, adding the agreement was negotiated in July and all parties had a copy of it by the Aug. 6 closed session “and saying they didn’t is a lie.”
During yesterday’s session, he said there were many meetings between TAA representatives and board members “when we begged the county representatives to listen to us because we were right on the law. That didn’t work, so we filed suit in January, requiring the county to comply with CEQA on a site-specific basis and under the Public Records Act to force the program to be transparent, a benefit to the public and to the growers themselves.”
He said the county initially fought on both points and eventually agreed on both.
“TAA won in that settlement agreement. The ‘no-fault’ language would be included in any settlement, and the agreement benefitted everyone in the county,” he said, adding the action to ratify a signature “is not necessary. It was final a long time ago. If anything, this appears to be a smoke screen on the Aug. 6 vote which the law requires to be revealed and we have asked for disclosure of. Trying to do this as a unanimous consent item will not hold up.”
Many others were very much opposed to settling the lawsuit and especially to paying TAA’s attorney fees which they argued sets a dangerous precedent for anyone who wants to sue the county and collect a hundred thousand dollars. Several used their three minutes to vilify TAA members, daring them to identify themselves, claiming they meet in secret and sue when they don’t get their way.
Some argued there will be worse consequences for the county in the future “if you don’t stand up right now and do what is right.”
Others objected to using cannabis license fee revenue to pay the settlement, saying it should come from the county’s general fund if anywhere.
“They don’t want us, but they want our money,” said one.
John Brower of Junction City and several others urged the board not to ratify the signature and to settle the matter by taking it to court. He argued for new legal representation “that doesn’t have a bias” and to “pull a jury from Trinity County. We know how that will end up. Don’t set the precedent that you can negotiate and then turn around with sour grapes and sue when you don’t get everything you asked for.”
Brian Gossman of Hayfork urged the board to be transparent, asking why the vote to approve an agreement was not made public.
“You represent us. Is there fear you won’t be voted back in when the votes are made public? Please make this transparent so we can trust in you to do the right thing for Trinity County,” he said.