Northern California

Is North Bay city using marijuana seizures as a cash cow to fill out its budget?

Rohnert Park city leaders said they had little to no knowledge of their public safety department’s aggressive efforts to intercept black-market drugs and cash by sending police officers far outside the city.

None of the five elected City Council members would say last week whether they believed those operations were an effective use of city resources, but one called for a closed-door meeting to discuss an investigation into a controversial former sergeant in the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety who led the seizures.

The operations focused in large part on the heavy flow of marijuana and cash down Highway 101 between the North Coast’s famed Emerald Triangle cannabis growing region and the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond.

Targeting motorists on that route, Rohnert Park officers seized $2.4 million in cash and valuable assets in the past three years — more than any other law enforcement agency in Sonoma County claimed under civil forfeiture laws. Many of the seizures were near the Sonoma-Mendocino county line — more than 40 miles north of Rohnert Park — and their peak came during a period when the city was struggling to fully staff its public safety department of cross-trained police officers and firefighters.

The city’s top enforcer in those missions, former Sgt. Brendon “Jacy” Tatum, left the force in June amid a city investigation into the complaints of a driver who said he was the victim of a drug robbery by unidentified officers on Highway 101. Tatum’s departure also coincided with mounting complaints about his on-duty conduct.

Mayor Pam Stafford said she remains “extremely proud” of Rohnert Park’s public safety department and said she doesn’t have the facts that would allow her to comment on the city’s policy for highway traffic stops seeking illegal drugs and cash. The council oversees city department budgets but has no say in how they are run, Stafford said.

“Yes, we are in charge of the budget, but we aren’t in charge of how public works people are dispatched or how recreation people do their jobs,” Stafford said.

Councilman Jake Mackenzie said it is the job of the city manager, Darrin Jenkins, and the public safety department’s director, Brian Masterson, to oversee the agency’s operations. Masterson has repeatedly declined to answer questions about the Highway 101 stops or about Tatum, a decorated 15-year veteran he promoted to sergeant in 2015.

Mackenzie said he could not recall any discussion by the council about the city’s asset seizure policies, or the employee time involved in such missions. He could not remember any discussion about the amount of money the seizures contributed to the city budget. In the fiscal year that ended June, the public safety department’s $20 million budget included about $200,000 of asset forfeiture funds allocated to spend on public safety vehicles.

“I do not remember at any time any of us engaging in a debate, on the City Council level, on the deployment of our resources on this particular issue,” Mackenzie said.

Masterson said he would speak with a reporter last week then failed to return repeated phone calls and an email requesting an interview.

Jenkins, the city manager, on Friday afternoon declined to answer most questions about the public safety department’s seizures or the policy behind them, saying he was prevented from doing so because it relates to “an open investigation,” and he needed to “preserve the rights of the involved parties.”

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