THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sep 21, 2023
The board reversal came in another split 3-2 vote, with Supervisor Lynda Hopkins saying she now favors the discretion given to the Sheriff’s Office to allow farmworker entry into evacuation zones for harvest.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors stepped back into a familiar fray Tuesday, using a special session to evaluate a hotly debated program authorized a year ago giving farmworkers access to agricultural lands during wildfires and other widespread disasters.
The discussion of an ID-card system for entry into evacuation zones — known as the Agricultural Access Verification Program — proved just as contentious as it had been in 2022, when a monthslong public debate preceded passage of the original resolution. As they had before, farmworkers rallied outside the county administrative building Tuesday and made impassioned pleas to the board.
And the supervisors reengaged in some testy exchanges.
After 4½ hours of wrangling, periodic confusion and a string of racist Zoom bombs during online public comment, just one significant change was made to the original Ag Pass resolution. It gives more explicit latitude to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office in interpreting the original blueprint — resulting in powers some believe the law enforcement agency already possessed.
Crucially, that means farm harvests, including the region’s signature wine grape harvest, may now be included among the scope of covered “critical agricultural activities” for which farmworkers are allowed to continue work in evacuation zones.
Harvest operations had been excluded in the board’s 3-2 vote on its original resolution in 2022.
That meant farmworkers would not be allowed into evacuation zones to hurriedly pick grapes, as they did under smoke-choked skies during the devastating North Bay wildfires in 2017 and 2020. But in its reversal on Tuesday, in another 3-2 split decision, the board authorized the Sheriff’s Office to define which agricultural activities are “critical,” and under what circumstances during calamities like wildfires and floods.
The move came at the request of wine industry representatives who had been pushing supervisors for such changes since the harvest season last year, according to emails and other communications released in a public records request shared with The Press Democrat.
The board majority favoring those changes Tuesday included Supervisors James Gore and David Rabbitt, joined this time by Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who had been opposed to that discretion for the Sheriff’s Office only a year ago. She left no doubt about why she had changed her mind.
“Quite frankly, there was a Sheriff at that time that I did not trust to prioritize public safety,” she said from the dais Tuesday. Hopkins had a tense and at times bitter public relationship with then-Sheriff Mark Essick, punctuated by a complaint she filed with county personnel officials accusing Essick of threatening her during a call to discuss evacuation protocol in the midst of the Walbridge Fire in September 2020.
Hopkins has praised Eddie Engram, who was elected to succeed Essick last November and now leads the agency.
While Tuesday’s decision was a clear victory for agricultural interests, it marked a setback for some farm labor groups, who have advocated for civilian leadership of the program. They had largely seen the original policy excluding harvest activities as a win.
“Workers and the community are outraged that last night a majority of the Board of Supervisors neglected their responsibility, went back on their commitments to worker safety, and sided with the interests of a few wealthy wine companies,” Max Bell Alper, executive director North Bay Jobs With Justice, said in a statement Wednesday.
“The truth is that workers are stronger than ever before and prepared to take collective action to win the dignity and wages they deserve.” Supervisors Chris Coursey and Susan Gorin were against allowing harvest in evacuation zones, as they were in 2022. The revisions Tuesday set Sonoma County apart from many other jurisdictions, including San Luis Obispo and Santa Cruz counties, that do not allow farmworkers into evacuation zones for harvest purposes.
But the changes align Sonoma with Napa County, where that emergency access is granted, and often during the most critical time of year — harvest for the region’s multibillion dollar wine industry, which had its crucial weeks of picking repeatedly shadowed by massive wildfires in recent years.
Mike Martini, a former Santa Rosa mayor who is now executive director of the wine industry group Sonoma Alliance for Vineyards and Environment, framed the Ag Pass program as a public safety issue that should be administered by public safety professionals.
“This whole thing is about how our community operates,” Martini said Wednesday. “At the end of the day, if it’s safe to save a portion of whatever it is that is threatened by a public emergency, we should do it — when it’s deemed safe. If it’s not safe, don’t do it.”
The 2022 resolution had clearly laid out which agricultural activities would be deemed critical, and therefore allowed at the margins of wildfires and floods. They included irrigating crops, fueling emergency generators and evacuating, transporting, feeding and administering veterinary care to livestock. Harvest operations were excluded by name. According to a chart provided by Sonoma County staff, a number of counties grant worker passes only for the livestock industry, excluding farming altogether.
A few use broad terms like “essential agricultural activities” to define their permitted evacuation-zone work. After Tuesday’s board action, Sonoma County will leave that decision to its Sheriff’s Office. Deputy Rob Dillion, the department spokesperson, likened the Ag Pass program to TSA pre-check at airports. “It’s an opportunity to check that someone works for a particular business before the time of an incident, which streamlines the process of security,” Dillion said in an email.
“The Ag Pass program will continue to operate as it has in the past years. As incidents unfold, the Sheriff's Office relies on information from our expert partners to inform decisions about public safety, including letting Ag Pass participants in the closed areas.”
The Sheriff's Office Rural Crimes Task Force will continue facilitating Ag Pass requests, as it did in previous years, Dillion added. In general, he downplayed the outcome of Tuesday’s vote. “The Ag Pass program has become quite an issue; however, for the Sheriff's Office, our job remains the same,” Dillion wrote. “Public safety remains at the core of what the Sheriff's Office does, which is no different from previous years.”
According to Hopkins, the original Ag Pass resolution, while listing harvest as an excluded activity, also granted the Sheriff’s Office some ability to amend the program manual in consultation with the supervisors.
The new language will clarify the official position on harvesting, Hopkins said. It was a change eagerly sought by the local wine industry since last fall, according to public records shared with The Press Democrat this week.
The records showed multiple communications by wine growers and vintners to supervisors requesting the inclusion of harvest activities just months after the initial program excluded them. On Nov. 30, 2022, Duff Bevill, a prominent grape grower who farms more than 1,000 acres in Sonoma County, emailed Hopkins to emphasize the importance of his crops. He also included a clip from the Modesto Bee that profiled the Ag Pass program in Stanislaus County.
“Their supervisors saw the need for landowners to have access to their land and provide ‘invaluable assistance’ to firefighters,” Bevill wrote. “All without putting every decision through the filter of social and equity justice.” Reached Wednesday, Bevill said he didn’t remember that email but lamented the tenor of the debate in Sonoma County.
“It has been turned into a racial discussion, which is wrong,” Bevill said. “I have people working for me close to 40 years now. And no one feels unfairly treated. So it’s a narrative that I think is pretty false. And the people working for me find it offensive, too. None of them feels they’re a victim.” It wasn’t until June 6, however, that the matter returned to the board.
There was little public indication of unhappiness with the Ag Pass program at that time, when fire and law enforcement officials delivered a preparedness presentation to the Board of Supervisors. During that presentation, staff and supervisors talked about low enrollment in the program and a perceived lack of discretion for the Sheriff’s Office.
That discussion led to this week’s special session. But confusion seeped in almost immediately Tuesday, with several supervisors noting they hadn’t expected staff to bring them a full revised resolution. “I didn’t get to read the resolution until Sunday night. At which point I was shocked,” Hopkins said in an interview Wednesday.
“The community had not had an opportunity to read that through. All of that was disappointing, and created distrust in the community that needs to be addressed and repaired moving forward.” Coursey asked a more fundamental question during the meeting. “I really have to wonder where some of these things came from,” he said. “Who asked for these changes to be made?”
The paper trail pointing, in part, to the wine industry includes a Jan. 10 letter to the Board of Supervisors from Sonoma County Vintners Executive Director Michael Haney in which he identified three “significant flaws incorporated into the current program that have resulted in the very low participation rates.”
One of those flaws, according to Haney, was asking employees to disclose personal information. Another was a requirement directing vineyard owners to disclose any alleged violations of workplace regulations. The third “flaw” was excluding harvest, sowing crops, food processing and facility repairs from the list of critical activities. “To be clear — harvesting is a farmer’s most critical activity,” Haney wrote.
“It alone provides the resources to meet payroll, take care of their families and pay county property taxes.”
A week later, the Sonoma County Farm Bureau sent a letter to Coursey that used original language to press similar points. It was signed by Farm Bureau President Doug Beretta and Executive Director Dayna Ghirardelli, and it, too, mentioned the excluded activities of harvesting, sowing, processing and repair.
“Designating preferential yet consequential restrictions versus allowing an individual to perform whatever activities they deem essential is evident in the failure of this program,” the letter read. Bevill, the Healdsburg-based vineyard manager and grape grower, told The Press Democrat that amendment of the program will firmly place decision-making in the hands of emergency personnel. The lobbying by the wine industry didn’t sit well with Alper, the Jobs With Justice director. “This is not an industry that is providing food,” he said in an interview Tuesday.
“It’s a luxury industry overwhelmingly owned by white people. Sending in immigrant workers to save their luxury harvest.” One element of the Ag Pass program is indisputable. To date, its reach has been limited.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Andrew Smith said only 168 people had applied for passes — property owners, managers and full-time agricultural and dairy workers are eligible — with 103 of those applications being approved. That represents a tiny fraction of the county’s estimated 6,000 full-time ag workers, and falls far short of the 400 businesses — many with large work staffs — that contacted the Sheriff’s and Agricultural Commissioner’s offices requesting emergency access to their properties during major fires in 2017, 2019 and 2020.
About 80 farmworkers and supporters rallied outside the county administration building before the meeting, listening to speeches, waving signs and marching while a seven-piece horn-and-drum band played festive Mexican music. Inside the board chambers, more than two-dozen people lined up to offer comment. All of them, including several health professionals, supported farmworker safety. Another dozen or so lent support through a Zoom feed. No one spoke on behalf of the growers.
Many of their comments about the Ag Pass program boiled down to one argument: The Sheriff’s Office is not the right authority to administer that program, because the largely immigrant community we all rely upon for ag work does not trust the agency. Several commenters Tuesday night mentioned the Sheriff’s Office’s history of cooperation with ICE, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Those speakers included Alegría De La Cruz, the daughter of prominent farm labor organizers who sat before the board as director of the county’s Office of Equity. Engram pushed back at that association, saying his office does not engage in “immigration enforcement.”
Alper also brought up the killing of David Peláez-Chavez, an agitated farmworker and burglary suspect who was shot in July 2022 by a deputy in a remote, wooded area of the county while the man reached for a rock.
Hopkins, in an interview Wednesday, said granting more discretionary power to Engram’s office might not work against enrollment as much as some fear. “The authority granted would allow the Sheriff’s Office to say yes, you can go in and milk cows at 4 a.m., even though that is prohibited by the administration manual,” she said. “I think that actually would help with enrollment, because employers would encourage their workers to sign up.
I’ve heard from dairy farmers who say, ‘Why would I apply when I can’t milk my cows anyway?’” De La Cruz advocated for a full racial-equity evaluation of the Ag Pass program. She also emphasized that including harvest operations among the critical agricultural activities vastly expands the scope of access, because harvest is so labor-intensive.
At times, the substantive issue of access to evacuation zones took a back seat to minor dramas. That included some sparring among supervisors. At one point, Gorin noted that Jennifer Klein, the chief deputy county counsel, “very emphatically said the critical activities do not include harvesting. So that is not open to interpretation by the Sheriff.”
“That’s not the way that’s written,” Rabbitt interjected when she had finished. “It’s the way it was voted,” Coursey chimed in. “It’s not the way it was written,” Rabbitt repeated.
The session was also marred by four or five racist messages made over Zoom, before Coursey cut short the public comment period. It was at least the third Sonoma County public meeting to be hit with Zoom bombs in the past week.
You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or email@example.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.