By Brad Hooker, Agri-Pulse

After years of friction, county agricultural commissioners warn their relationship with state pesticide regulators has hit a crisis point. Political pressure from the Newsom administration to overhaul the regulatory system has led to an erosion of trust that is shaking the foundation of the partnership between county and state governments.

The commissioners, or CACs, are pleading with the administration to value their independence and expertise and not disrupt a longstanding system that they say has delivered the world’s most robust environmental and labor protections with regard to pest control.

“We want this system — that has operated successfully in California for 143 years — to continue,” said Lindsey Carter, executive director of the California Agricultural Commissioners and Sealers Association (CACASA), in a statement to Agri-Pulse. “But CACs cannot execute our duties to enforce pesticide laws without appropriate support at the state level by DPR.”

The Department of Pesticide Regulation’s approach to working with commissioners began to change in 2019, when Gov. Gavin Newsom took office, and has “progressively gotten more difficult” since then, according to Carter.

Last week CACASA President Lisa Herbert detailed specific incidents in letters to DPR Director Julie Henderson and CalEPA Secretary Yana Garcia and forwarded it to several legislative leaders.

Some of the concerns stem from the previous DPR director, Val Dolcini, who stepped into a conflict between environmental justice advocates and Kern County Agricultural Commissioner Glenn Fankhauser. The interest groups charged that Fankhauser was blocking attempts to establish an alert system to warn residents ahead of local pesticide applications. Dolcini sought to reach a compromise but instead promised to deliver on a pesticide notification system.

That decision has continued to reverberate through DPR’s relationship with CACASA years after Dolcini left the position in 2021. Herbert on Friday asked the administration to “not make promises to stakeholders that could negatively impact the state’s pesticide use enforcement regulatory program without first evaluating and consulting with other stakeholders that may be impacted by such decisions.”

Henderson later scaled up the promise into a statewide initiative and DPR is in the final stages of development. The rollout has created more frays in the partnership.

“There seems to be a general impression given by DPR that CACs do not support its initiatives regarding enhanced pesticide notification systems,” said Carter. “In fact, ag commissioners have worked collaboratively to assist DPR with a number of new initiatives.”

They hosted four pilot projects on notifications followed by a beta test for the software. Working closely with county supervisors and administrators, Fankhauser was unable to come to a legal agreement on hosting a trial in Kern County.

“That was in no way reflective of the commissioner’s willingness to engage in the conversations to host this beta test,” said Carter. “We have been encouraging Director Henderson to be more transparent with concerned community groups in Kern as to why this beta test is not going forward.”

In her letters, Herbert asserted that the initiatives were “entirely outside the scope of our authority or responsibility.” She pressed DPR to support and defend CACs from “individuals and agencies that would question the integrity of the work we do to protect our communities” and to communicate to stakeholders the robust protections already in place and to be clear on the limits of the state’s authority over pesticide use.

The actions of a handful of environmental justice advocates are “substantially impacting CACs’ ability to perform one of our most critical roles of protecting the safety of farmworkers, the public and the environment,” said Herbert. By catering to the advocates, DPR “supports and facilitates proliferation of the false narratives they are generating.”

According to CACASA, DPR has shied away from transparency in certain areas but stressed it in others. Herbert noted that the department has insisted on public transparency during active enforcement investigations, jeopardizing the integrity of a regulatory program bound by confidentiality laws that “ensure we respect due process, professional preparation and completion of investigative cases.”

Transparency was also a driving concern earlier this month, when lawmakers debated the administration’s proposal to raise the mill assessment on pesticide sales to expand DPR’s budget. Critics charged that the department lacked accountability on how it spends the money.

The administration has acknowledged that a portion of the revenues would fund the Sustainable Pest Management Roadmap, which aims to eliminate certain pesticides by 2050 while expediting alternatives into the market.

Herbert expressed concern that such “nonstatutorily mandated activities” have already diverted personnel and budgets while “crippling our ability to manage and execute our priorities in maintaining a robust pesticide use enforcement program.” She warned that the system is in peril, as staff turnover hits alarming rates and many are reluctant to take on the burden of rising to commissioner.

CalEPA did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.

Many of the issues are not new. When Agri-Pulse asked Henderson for a response to commissioner concerns last year over the frayed relationship, she said she has “a very good working relationship” with many agricultural commissioners as well as Herbert.

“We completely understand that any kind of change is challenging,” said Henderson.

She reasoned that major changes must happen to adapt to the impacts of “climate change, weather swings, increasing pest pressures, tools that are no longer effective, increasing science emerging about human health risks.”

According to Carter, CACASA has regularly scheduled meetings with DPR and has made many attempts to address the situation.

“Unfortunately, these efforts have not met with any kind of real or substantive response,” said Carter. “If anything, the situation has worsened in the last year.”

She hopes to engage lawmakers on the issue and inform them of the “tremendous value” with on-the-ground enforcement and 30,000 inspections performed annually by commissioners. She stressed that counties fund commissioners and that local boards and officials have close working relationships with them. State tax dollars do not contribute to enforcement programs.

Chris Reardon, who spent a decade working at DPR and now directs government relations for the California Farm Bureau, told Agri-Pulse that it was “very unfortunate that it had to play out like this.”

Like Carter, he noted that it was not uncommon for DPR and CACs to disagree on occasion but called it “very unusual to see this frustration spill out in public.”

Herbert, who is stepping down as president on Friday, remains hopeful that the two parties can “stop the downward spiral and create a healthy working partnership.”