Sipping from a Big Gulp cup, crammed behind his desk in City Hall, Anthony Wagner opened up a Zoom call in early May. Wagner is a big guy who likes big watches and has a big manner.
“You know, from now on, I’m going to be married to you,” he told me. For a public information engagement manager in genteel Santa Barbara, he had a big-city way of talking that was out of keeping with the soft-spoken approach to city governance under longtime City Administrator Paul Casey. He was fending off inquiries into crucial upcoming budget and pay-cut talks for Santa Barbara’s first COVID budget.
“We’re going to be joined at the hip,” he added. “We’re gonna be best friends…[City council] are not going to talk to you. But I’ll get you everything you need.”
The exchange was curious. Wagner’s swagger was rambunctious, fidgety, like a lesser character in one of the Godfather movies. After three short years in Santa Barbara, Wagner had a total compensation package of well over $200,000, while holding a host of titles: spokesperson for the Santa Barbara Police Department, self-declared “eyes and ears” for the police chief, permits and licensing manager, civilian PIO for the mayor, and the key administrator in awarding high-stakes cannabis dispensary licenses.
Tracking Wagner’s three-year rise and eventual downfall, exposes more about the city’s political machine than most people care to admit. To most observers Santa Barbara is a confection of white stucco and red roof tiles, not the place for political intrigue. But Wagner’s tenure raises a host of questions about city management; police transparency and accountability; the remarkably high city administrative salary levels, especially during an economic downturn; the awarding of pot dispensary licenses; and an invasion of San Diegoans into the city’s insular administrative ranks.
These issues were thrown into stark contrast by the 400-plus city workers pink slipped in response to COVID back in March 2020, among them parking lot attendants who were replaced by automated machines. Few if any cuts have been made in the city’s executive ranks, populated by bureaucrats who receive some of the highest salaries in all of California. For instance, Santa Barbara City Manager Paul Casey’s pay package is greater than that of the Governor of California.
How did Anthony Wagner, utterly new to the city, end up in so many pivotal positions in three short years?
The first answer to this question is his boss Chief of Police Lori Luhnow, the first woman to head the Santa Barbara Police Department and a 27-year career officer in San Diego.
“She’s a home run hire,” Paul Casey stated in July 2016. As city administrator, Casey has the sole power to hire and fire city employees in Santa Barbara. “Her experience was outstanding and relevant. Her energy and enthusiasm are contagious.”
The Chief of Police in Santa Barbara has a compensation package of $392,054.83 including benefits, which is higher than police chief salaries in Los Angeles and many surrounding cities. Luhnow had already begun receiving her pension from the City of San Diego when she took the job. Yet according to her time cards, available through public information requests, Luhnow took regular three-day weekends in her home in Coronado Island, including during the Thomas fire, the Montecito debris flow, and the Black Lives Matter protests.
Shortly after Chief Luhnow was hired she made an unusual request, one that raised concern within the police force, as well as with veteran officers and some city council members. The new police chief asked that Anthony Wagner, a fellow San Diego native, be appointed to a newly created position as “information and engagement manager” for the SBPD. She sacrificed the second-in-command deputy chief staff position to pay for the hire. In a most curious turn, she gave Wagner a badge despite that he had no training or history in law enforcement. Wagner also failed to receive a “recommendation to hire” after the police department’s extensive background check. The chief overrode the finding and the city manager backed her up on appeal.
Bringing Wagner, a non-commissioned San Diegoan, under these conditions into the close-knit Santa Barbara Police Department with generations of officers, veterans of 25 years or more, raised eyebrows and caused a major cultural rift.
Wagner famously announced his arrival in Santa Barbara with a tweet during the Thomas fire in December 2017, featuring a photo of him in a bright yellow PD Emergency jacket. Presumably sitting at the Emergency Operations Center, he tweeted: “Fast approaching being the largest fire n California’s history. Currently, largest assembled fire apparatus & personnel ever gathered 4a forest fire. I’m the Citywide PIO & Police Manager for the City of Santa Barbara. I have arrived.”
Wagner’s “I have arrived” quickly became a tongue-in-cheek catch phrase whenever he’d enter a room, following him throughout his tenure within the department.
What exactly is the relationship between Luhnow and Wagner? No one seems to know. Multiple inquiries to the City Administration were fruitless. Importantly, officers in the PD admit they have no idea. There is no apparent record in the San Diego local press, or the Santa Barbara press for that matter. (Luhnow and Wagner did not respond to direct questions via email or requests for interviews for this story.)
What is clear is that the Chief and Wagner at least knew each other, having both served on an Alcohol Policy Panel for San Diego County Health & Human Services Agency as per emails turned over in an information request.
Councilwoman Alejandra Gutierrez, a young, outspoken native of Santa Barbara’s Eastside district, raised the alarm about Wagner from early on. Gutierrez has the open, ready smile of someone who works with young children, the result of many years as a counselor in Title 1 schools. Her constituents had already made objections about the strident way Wagner behaved in her district. One incident occurred in a 7-Eleven on the Eastside over Wagner’s use of his badge.
George Trujillo, affectionately known as “George the Barber,” owns the Classic Barber Shop across from Prestige Hand Car Wash and just down the street from Santa Barbara’s taco landmark, La Super-Rica. A fixture on the Eastside, Trujillo is a wiry five foot nine and has a vivid street style. The Trujillos are one of the many Latino families who have deep roots and a long history in Santa Barbara. Like others from the Black and Brown communities, he’s suffered his share of racial profiling, but people of all kinds come into his shop for haircuts, including a number of police officers.
“One morning before work I’m in the 7-Eleven and the line is really backed up and there’s two registers,” Trujillo says. “This guy is questioning the cashier about selling cigarettes. You know, the penal code about selling cigarettes, he’s basically interrogating him. We all know the cashiers that work there, there’s nothing going on. So, I said, can you hurry up? You’re in one line and you’re holding up the other line. The guy turns to look at me and says, ‘You shut the fuck up.’”
“Then the guy walks over to me with his arms wide and gets within inches of my face. He hovers over me, he’s about six three,” Trujillo recalls. “But he realizes I’m not scared. Somebody in the store says “una chota,” which means ‘he’s a cop.’” That’s when Trujillo noticed the man had a Santa Barbara Police Department ID badge hanging around his neck. Trujillo immediately pulled out his phone, began recording, and the “chota” walked out to the parking lot.
When Trujillo called the PD to complain, the officer told him that the man he encountered, Anthony Wagner, was not a commissioned police officer and that he was not supposed to be wearing the ID outside the department. Trujillo filed a formal complaint. Soon he received a surprising Facebook message from Mayor Cathy Murillo apologizing: “So sorry you had those experiences! I know you’re a good guy. The community knows you and respects you. You are a big part of the Eastside Community.” In the meantime, his complaint was fully sustained and signed by Police Chief Lori Luhnow. Trujillo was astonished.
“I never heard from the city guys before. They really started freaking out, they were really worried about me and what I’d do.” As far as Trujillo could tell, Wagner was not disciplined, nor was his badge rescinded.
Wagner’s position as spokesperson for the mayor was short lived and ended precipitously. Mayor Murillo had been vilified for being out of touch at the inception of the COVID crisis. In response, Wagner designed and produced a projected series of five “State of the City” fireside COVID chats for the mayor. The talks were slick, stiff, heavy handed, and failed to improve the mayor’s image. As the death of George Floyd roiled the country, Wagner also choreographed the mayor’s appearance at the June 10, 2020, Black Lives Matter protest rally in front of the police station. Murillo had declined an invitation to march with the protesters due to her concerns about COVID-19; instead she made an appearance at the demonstration surrounded by officers dressed in riot gear. Santa Barbara isn’t used to ostentatious displays of military might from their mayors and the overreaction contrasted with the beautiful balmy weather, blue skies, and peaceful marchers that day.
Instead of addressing the crowd in a moment of solidarity, Murillo took off her mask, which seemed to belie her COVID concerns, refused to take a knee as requested by the chanting crowd, waxed indignant at not being treated respectfully, and, as the crowd turned on her, retreated at Wagner’s direction back into the armored vehicle and was driven away.
By the following Tuesday the impact of the publicity disaster had sunk in. At a live-streamed city council meeting, Murillo finally took a knee, on camera, which was met with disdain by dozens of community members as too little, too late. She was subject to dozens of public comments in over an hour of live pillorying in front of other council members and the press. By the end of June, City Manager Casey sent Wagner back to the police department, less than a month into his new position.
In 2003, living in San Diego while in his twenties, Wagner was swept up in an FBI probe of the Cheetah’s Totally Nude club. He was reportedly at the table during the payment of a $10,000 bribe to two San Diego council members, one of whom was acting mayor. Wagner was never charged, but went on to work with another disgraced San Diego Mayor, Bob Filner, who appointed him to the San Diego Planning Board in 2013.
Several years into his tenure on the Planning Board, Wagner and some of his associates in the cannabis business went on to form the Southern California Responsible Growers Council or SCRGC. Wagner doesn’t seem to have had any experience as a grower yet he became the executive director and spokesperson for the group, billing himself as a “land-use policy expert.” Through SCRGC, Wagner specialized in getting major cannabis operations approved.
Adam Knopf, owner of a dispensary called Golden State Greens, was another key player in San Diego’s Medical Marijuana dispensary business. A number of Medical Marijuana Consumer Cooperatives (MMCCs) had been the subject of heated debate in San Diego, especially as retail marijuana was due to take effect in California. There was great concern that medical marijuana dispensaries that were made legal in the Compassionate Care Act would be used for retail.
According to the Planning Commission agenda minutes of March 12, 2015, Wagner voted to approve Knopf’s MMCC, which had been denied three months earlier. In fact Commissioner Wagner initiated the motion to approve, advocating for his associates representing significant conflicts.
Two years later in 2017, after being hired by Police Chief Luhnow, Wagner was placed in charge of awarding highly valuable dispensary licenses in the booming Santa Barbara marijuana business by the city administrator. Soon after Wagner’s assignment, key associates from his San Diego past began to appear in Santa Barbara, including Adam Knopf.
It’s never been clear whether Luhnow or Casey were aware of Wagner’s past business connections or just chose to look the other way. Luhnow and Casey declined to comment.
Wagner confirms his central role in the development and design of Santa Barbara’s cannabis dispensary licensing in emails to Administrator Casey and Police Chief Luhnow obtained through public information requests.
“I was the staff lead in developing an intradepartmental team, researching and developing a cannabis regulatory ordinance inclusive of a land use package, operational requirements, and tax schematic,” Wagner writes. He was the one key manager drafting and legislatively executing local cannabis land use, operational standards, and tax and fee ordinances.
Many players in Santa Barbara’s dispensary sweepstakes contend that Wagner was actually brought up from San Diego to handle Santa Barbara’s eight cannabis dispensary licenses from the beginning.
“The whole purpose of the licensing process was to vet proper operators,” says David McFarland, owner of Santa Barbara Care Center, a medical cannabis dispensary in Goleta that has operated for 13 years, predating the current green rush. “The City Council initially said they wanted local owners and operators.”
At least two other city employees were appointed to work with Wagner: Matt Fore, senior assistant to City Administrator Casey, and Tava Ostrenger, assistant city attorney working for City Attorney Ariel Calonne. The decision on licensing was made through a point system Wagner helped architect. The scoring system and the actual scores for all the dispensary license applicants were confirmed through public information requests.
Wagner was the key player in the selection process, as well as the public-facing spokesperson. He took full responsibility for the process, remarking to local press that the selection process was “so painstakingly meticulous it can withstand any scrutiny.” Each applicant was given a series of numerical scores based on a number of criteria. The process was not open to the public. As concern developed, Wagner defended the scoring system.
“The scores were close, but that’s just how it came out,” Wagner said. “It is what it is.” Fore and Ostrenger refused multiple interview requests and written questions about the committee under Wagner’s direction.
In California it is rare for a city to run its own marijuana-growers approval process due to concerns about conflicts of interest and the potential for corruption. Dispensary applicants spent enormous sums preparing the applications and lobbying the city. Malante Hawthorne, co-owner of Coastal, a dispensary that eventually secured one of the licenses, said his partnership alone spent close to $1 million in the process.
In July 2018, following an eight-month review, three of the eight recreational cannabis dispensaries were selected. Golden State Greens, owned by Knopf from San Diego, was the recipient of one of the coveted licenses.
“I was shocked when the scoring came in,” McFarland of Santa Barbara Care Center recalls. “After I applied, they refused to let me know what the scoring was. I wanted to know my score so I could better my application, and they wouldn’t tell me until I got word a couple of months ago that I was out. They eliminated me at round one, and it was two years ago when I applied.”
McFarland is hardly the only applicant who found the process baffling. In October of 2018, a lawsuit was filed against the city on behalf of another rejected dispensary applicant, Sunday Goods Santa Barbara, Inc.
“When the city launched a competitive application process to award permits for storefronts for the sale of commercial cannabis, it had to abide by the highest standards of fairness and integrity. Unfortunately, it did not,” the lawsuit states. Other applicants have complained but were unwilling to speak on the record because they have permits before the city and their livelihoods depend on their approval.
Shortly after receiving the green light for the dispensary on State Street in the heart of downtown, without any construction and without opening the store for even a day, Golden State Greens flipped the license, selling it to Jushi, a company based out of Boca Raton, Florida. The purchase price was not disclosed, but multiple knowledgeable sources within the Santa Barbara weed business community speculate the price was approximately $7 million dollars, $5 million for the business and $2 million for the building.
Even though Golden State Greens never opened a store and simply sold the license at what many believe was a windfall profit, the city did not restart the scoring process or notify the next company that had likely spent significant funds to prepare an application. If, as Wagner said, “it was close,” why wouldn’t the next-highest-rated applicant take over the license?
Furthermore Jushi was not scored on the point system at all. Instead MuniServices, a municipal auditing company was assigned to simply evaluate Jushi’s ability to purchase and build out the property.
That GSG could turn a profit at all by selling their license was controversial. Santa Barbara County does not allow the transfer of dispensary licenses, expressly to avoid windfall sales and speculation.
Santa Barbara’s city ordinances are different. Section 9.44.150 dictates that “a commercial cannabis business permit issued under this chapter is…nontransferable.” But unlike the county, the city has an important exception, one that depends on a single person’s approval: the city manager.
Sections 9.44.180 and 9.44.170 provide ample opportunity to make an application to the city administrator—in this case Casey, who was directly responsible for approving the license flip from Golden State Greens to an even more distant, non-local dispensary company in Boca Raton.
Informing the city council and approval were required for the transfer, but according to council members, they were caught totally unawares.
“We learned about the new owner through the press,” Council Member Kristen Snedden says. “We were kept insulated from the process throughout. The first time we heard about the purchase was after the process was complete through local press reporting. The council was not informed.”
Even though City Administrator Casey light-heartedly refers to the city council and mayor as his “seven bosses,” it’s difficult to discern a more powerful figure in city government who wields near unilateral ability to take action.
Casey has a reputation of running a tight ship, but according to a top city official who requested anonymity, “Casey is conflict adverse. Santa Barbara uses the Gallup Clifton-Strength Assessment that cities use all over the country,” the source added. “Paul’s one-word assessment was ‘harmony.’”
Disharmony is a better word to describe the results of Anthony Wagner’s presence. The negative attention became concerning enough for the city administrator to release a surprisingly blunt statement on June 15, 2020: “Anthony was brought over to my office on a temporary assignment to assist with COVID-19 response. With the governor and the county’s move to reopen the economy, that temporary assignment to my office has come to an end.”
Casey even sent George the Barber an unsolicited email stating, “I wanted to let you know Anthony Wagner is no longer assigned or working in my office, that temporary assignment has ended.”
Casey informed Wagner of the termination that Friday, June 12. It had been a month of public relations problems at City Hall that included the release of a Grand Jury report on city governance that determined Santa Barbara suffered from “a lack of strong leadership.” In addition to that Grand Jury’s comments, Councilwoman Alejandra Gutierrez made a formal request to City Attorney Ariel Calonne that the city process for awarding cannabis dispensary licenses be investigated. She was concerned that Wagner’s connections in the cannabis business represented major conflicts.
“I had received a lot of complaints about the city process to obtain a cannabis license,” Gutierrez remarks. “Being new on council I didn’t want to just bring unsubstantiated complaints. Several people in my district did their homework and presented information to me that backed up their claims. This is when I decided to bring this issue to the City Attorney’s Office.”
Although the city attorney agreed to conduct an investigation, it was handled in an uncommon way. Highly placed City Hall sources confirmed that, typically, an outside contractor is retained to conduct personnel investigations when complaints are received about senior management employees or in situations where a particular expertise is needed. When complaints were received about the conduct of Chief Luhnow, an outside council was hired. Yet for the Wagner complaint, Calonne carried out the investigation internally, rather than bringing in an outside investigator.
It’s considered a significant potential conflict of interest for Calonne to investigate his own office and his assistant city attorney, Tava Ostrenger, who worked closely with Wagner. The results of the investigation have not been revealed to the public, the press, the city council, or even Ms. Gutierrez.
Multiple council members interviewed off the record for this story said that they were warned directly by Paul Casey and City Attorney Calonne to not talk to the press or outside parties about Wagner citing the City Charter’s prohibition for Council Members to talk publicly about city employees. City staff, Paul Casey, Ariel Calonne, Matt Fore, Tava Ostrenger, Police Chief Luhnow, and Wagner have refused multiple requests for interviews or to respond to submitted questions.
Since being pulled from the City Hall, Wagner has been sitting at a desk on the top floor of the Police Station. His main preoccupation these days seems to be churning out a prodigious number of press releases regarding police blotter crimes—knife-wielding suspects, lost dogs, gas station robberies and the like—while continuing to receive his $200,000-plus salary. It’s a big come down from being City Hall’s pot czar with an office in City Hall making Zoom calls to reporters. Luhnow has meanwhile decided to take early retirement in February, receiving a retirement package on top of her first one from San Diego.
Anthony Wagner will likely leave someday, but even when he does the implications for the city manager and city attorney are far reaching. He has submitted a job recommendation request to the police chief and city administrator along with his resume. City Attorney Ariel Calonne has continued to shield Wagner from the press and admonish the council from discussing the issues surrounding Wagner.
While the city administrator, the police chief, and Wagner continue to make hundreds of thousands of dollars, and weed dispensary wheeler-dealers make millions, back on the Eastside, George “The Barber” Trujillo has been dealing with repercussions that he sees as stemming from the complaint he filed against Wagner. Seven detectives raided his shop to collect “evidence” because there was a robbery down the street. Trujillo has surveillance video of the police going through his money. He’s filed a Federal complaint and he’s waiting to see what happens.
As for Wagner, Trujillo is convinced there is still more to be revealed. “They’re afraid to get rid of Anthony,” Trujillo says. “That’s why he’s not gone. He must know something.”
A prior version of this story incorrectly identified Micah Anderson as one of the owners that applied for a cannabis dispensary license for Golden State Greens in Santa Barbara. The information we have been provided since the article was published shows that Mr. Anderson was neither an owner of Golden State Greens nor involved in the application process in Santa Barbara. We apologize for any confusion.
Several minor adjustments were made to the text of the story after publication.