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Santa Barbara city leaders respond to police spokesman investigation sparked by critical magazine report

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Leaders in Santa Barbara’s City Hall are responding Tuesday to a critical article published on Friday in Los Angeles Magazine that brought into question the city’s marijuana licensing process as well as Santa Barbara Police Department spokesman Anthony Wagner.

As reported on Monday, interim Santa Barbara police chief Bernard Melekian placed Wagner on paid administrative leave while an investigation into the claims found in this critical article began.

The police department said it is looking for a third-party organization to specifically investigate Wagner’s connection with two San Diego businessmen who obtained a marijuana license in Santa Barbara--a question raised by the Los Angeles Magazine story.

In a phone call Tuesday with Santa Barbara city administrator Paul Casey, he said he is satisfied with Chief Melekian’s response to the claims made in the article and has confidence the investigation will be thorough.

Casey also addressed two other topics the article brought up including why former police chief Lori Luhnow condensed a sworn officer position to make space for Wagner, who is not a sworn officer. He also commented on the city’s marijuana licensing process.

Casey said it is not uncommon for different departments to restructure their staff when a new head comes in. Chief Luhnow was allowed to choose the team she wanted and needed the city council to approve her police department’s budget, which they did.

As for the marijuana licensing procedure, the article questioned why one business was able to apply for a license only to then sell it to another company for millions of dollars.

Casey explained that in 2017, the city council adopted an ordinance for how they approve marijuana licensing. The city council deliberated the process for a year before creating the law. The transfer the business made falls inside the guidelines of this ordinance.

If a future city council wants to change the ordinance, Casey said they are welcome to--similar to any other city ordinance. No other city department has the ability to change the ordinance.

Casey added there were lawsuits litigated against the current ordinance, and they were thrown out.

On Monday, in an off-camera interview, Anthony Wagner gave more details on the marijuana licensing process. He said, which Casey confirmed Tuesday, that there were six members of the committee that scored each business’s application for a license. 

Casey said the city does not plan to have its own investigation outside of the third-party investigation Chief Melekian ordered.

"And the only really the new allegation was the issues of what was Mr. Wagner’s financial or otherwise relationship with the people from San Diego," Chief Melekian said. "That’s the one I’m going to focus on."

At the beginning of Tuesday's Santa Barbara City Council session, Mayor Cathy Murillo gave a verbal statement.

“An article in Los Angeles Magazine published last week raised concerns about the city’s recreational cannabis permitting process," said Mayor Murillo. "And suggested that there may have been some wrongdoing. To reassure the public that we are taking these allegations seriously the city will commission an outside independent investigation into these matters. We will take any necessary action when the report is final.”

EDITORS NOTE: On Friday February 25, 2022, Los Angeles Magazine removed articles referenced in this story. In an unsigned email, the following note was sent to the News Channel: “Articles posted by your organization will no longer redirect the user to the articles because the articles have been removed from the Los Angeles Magazine website,”  This updated story reflects the current status of a legal complaint filed against the magazine by former Santa Barbara Police Spokesman Anthony Wagner.

Article Topic Follows: Santa Barbara - South County
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Scott Sheahen

Scott Sheahen is a reporter for NewsChannel 3-12. To learn more about Scott, click here.


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