Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo opened Tuesday’s Santa Barbara City Council meeting by announcing that the city will commission an independent investigation into Santa Barbara Police spokesman Anthony Wagner amid allegations about his conduct and involvement with awarding cannabis dispensary licenses.
Interim Police Chief Barney Melekian announced Monday that Mr. Wagner, who also briefly served as a spokesman for Ms. Murillo, had been placed on administrative leave.
Ms. Murillo said that the article, published Saturday in Los Angeles Magazine, “raised concerns about the city’s recreational cannabis permitting process and suggested there may have been some wrongdoing.”
The mayor said the city will take “any necessary action” once that report is final.
As Chief Melekian said on Monday, many of the allegations made in the article had been previously investigated or looked into, either by the police department or the city attorney’s office.
“Nevertheless, there was new information with additional questions raised about a police department employees’ relationship with individuals involved in the cannabis industry in San Diego,” Chief Melekian said on Tuesday.
The chief added that the selection of the independent firm was underway on Tuesday and that a firm would be hired in short order.
“I should note that Mr. Wagner, the employee, has been fully cooperative and supportive in this investigation,” Chief Melekian said. “Once we have that result back, the city manager and the city attorney and I are committed to releasing the maximum amount of information out to the public as possible.”
City Attorney Ariel Calonne said the allegations against Mr. Wagner are “extremely serious.”
“I think anyone listening could understand that, if true, those allegations would be very damaging to the people that were identified,” Mr. Calonne said. “So, we need to get the facts and the city council is not a position to hire and fire anyone other than (City Administrator Paul) Casey or myself. We serve as at-will, non-partisan political appointees.”
The incident drew a few public comments at Tuesday’s meeting, including one man who said he had supporting documents related to the allegations and stated he was “concerned for the community” as well as his personal safety.
Another man accused city leaders of “top-level regime corruption,” that has been going on for years. He questioned how someone who had been investigated by the FBI for corruption could be in charge of the city’s licensing for narcotics.
The man accused city management of being “either grossly negligent” in the matter or was promised something in return. He further accused Mr. Calonne and Mr. Casey of aiding and abetting Mr. Wagner and called for the city to clean house.
Several others accused Mr. Wagner of taking bribes and spoke against what they said was corrupt behavior.
The magazine article accuses Mr. Wagner, who is not a sworn police officer, of flashing a badge and bullying a business owner. Mr. Wagner went on to become the point person who awarded cannabis dispensary licenses for the city of Santa Barbara.
In a statement to the press on Monday, Chief Melekian said the city prevailed in a federal lawsuit by one of the unsuccessful cannabis permit applicants, which was dismissed in December 2019.
Mr. Wagner has been with the Santa Barbara Police Department since 2017, when he arrived here from San Diego. He joined the department at the request of Police Chief Lori Luhnow, who is also from San Diego. Chief Luhnow recently retired from the Santa Barbara Police Department.
In a statement to the News-Press, Mr. Wagner said, “I am in full support (of) and welcome a thorough third-party investigation to clear my good name of these unsubstantiated accusations. I am confident in the process, without reservation.”
Mr. Wagner also said the Los Angeles Magazine story contains multiple errors and “misstates and misrepresents my background, significant events in my life, and past professional interactions and personal relationships.”
In other business Tuesday, the city received an update on its five-year capital improvement program for fiscal years 2022-26, as well as a mid-year capital improvement program status update. The council received a presentation on city staff for the proposed and unfunded projects with an associated cost of $1.2 billion. This included $483 million in proposed, funded projects, as well as $706 million unfunded projects.
Of the projects with funded budgets, projects on wastewater and water treatment totaled about $207 million, Measure C projects have been allocated $98 million, about $40 million were grant projects or other public-private partnerships, some $38 million for airport improvements and roughly $33 were for Measure A projects.
In terms of unfunded projects, nearly $389 million worth of projects are seeking grant funding, some $102 million are for airport improvements and $77 million are general fund projects. The city is anticipating a debt issuance of $88 million for the new police station, officials said.
Christi Velasquez, administrative analyst for the city, later said that the city has budgeted for $4.5 million in fiscal years 2022 and 2023 for the new police station, which is still under design review and could be completed by 2026.
Brian D’Armour, city engineer, presented the mid-year update, which showed eight projects that have been completed (totaling $31 million), 20 projects under active construction (totaling $61 million) and 36 future projects for a total of $158 million.
Of the completed projects, Mr. D’Armour discussed the recently completed $20 million renovation at the Cabrillo Pavilion, at 1118 E. Cabrillo Blvd., as well as $4.1 million in water main replacements.
Several other projects are still under construction, including the Las Positas and Modoc Road multi-use path ($18 million) that could be completed by late 2022, Bohnett Park renovations ($730,000) that could be completed by late spring, and exterior upgrades at the Lois Lowry Davis Center.
In addition, Mr. D’Armour made mention various other future projects, including the De la Vina Street crosswalk and bike lane project, which would remove one vehicle lane from West Carrillo Street to West Haley Street and add a new, class-two bike lane (total cost of $1.54 million), as well as work at the Braemar Lift Station at the corner of Alan Road and Cliff Drive, and is adjacent to Arroyo Burro Creek. The $6.9 million project will upgrade the mechanical system at the site.