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October 16, 2023

CCC names agency newcomer as acting director

Photo | File Union Station, home the Cannabis Control Commission's headquarters

Marijuana regulators gave themselves an added measure of certainty around one of two Cannabis Control Commission leadership positions Monday by appointing their head of human resources to serve as acting executive director for the next several weeks with important budget and policy matters on the horizon.

Chief People Officer Debra Hilton-Creek will serve as acting executive director of the CCC "until the return of" Executive Director Shawn Collins, who is out on parental leave until early December. Acting Chair Ava Callender Concepcion nominated Hilton-Creek, a newcomer to the CCC, for the position and said it would be "for the next few months moving forward."

"Debbie is a military veteran, a human resources practitioner with over 25 years of management and organizational leadership experience, and as evidenced in our last meeting, she has really gotten up to speed on our policies and procedures here at the commission in a really impressive amount of time," Concepcion said. "And she also brings a fresh lens with a focus on the people, the culture and the best practices for organizational operations."

Hilton-Creek joined the CCC from Max HR Consulting Services, where she was the chief HR consultant and directed the design, planning and implementation of corporate organizational development programs, policies and procedures. Her resume also includes time working as human resources director for the town of Hopkinton and as chief human resources officer at the Codman Square Health Center.

"I guess all I can say is wow. This is really an incredible opportunity," Hilton-Creek said Monday. "Am I a little bit scared? Of course. Am I worried? No, because I do have an incredible team. We have an incredible team and every day I interact with them, it reminds me of the work that we're doing here and how important we are as an agency. So I am not worried. I'm a little bit scared. But again, with the people that are here, there's no doubt in my mind that a collaborative effort will get us through this next few months."

In 2013, on a cable access show in Hopkinton, Hilton-Creek said, "I actually got exposed to the profession when I was in the Army and in loved it so much that when I finished my tour, I decided that I would like to go into the human resources profession. So I basically went back to school, got my master's degree and and then started looking for the right opportunity to apply my skills and my knowledge.

After her military service, Hilton-Creek was executive director of a health care organization in Colorado. She switched to the hotel industry when she relocated to Massachusetts and then moved into role she said was "a combination of social services and health care" for nine years. Before her time in Hopkinton, Hilton-Creek said she took some time off to be closer with her family.

Commissioners said they were comfortable with Hilton-Creek as the interim administrative head of the agency, particularly as the CCC prepares for the fiscal year 2025 budget process and continues to work on important regulatory matters, like the eventual rollout of venues where adults will be allowed to consume cannabis on-site.

The unanimous vote of the four active commissioners Monday resolves the issue of CCC staff leadership at least for now. Concepcion is serving as acting chair of the CCC until at least Nov. 9 as suspended Chairwoman Shannon O'Brien fights Treasurer Deborah Goldberg's suspension in court.

Collins has been out of the office at the CCC for about a month, and is out on leave until early December, Commissioner Nurys Camargo said Monday. For about the last month, the agency has been operating on a "consensus approach," she said.

"Any of our team members can lead this agency. They've done a good job at it and I think the consensus model has been working. But I think it's now time for us to have an interim executive director to have ... just one point person in terms of us just moving forward with the next few weeks until he returns from his leave," Camargo said.

When Director of Communications Cedric Sinclair stepped in for Collins to give the standard executive director's report at the Sept. 14 CCC meeting, he said that Collins' "authority for administrative oversight has been delegated to myself, Chief Operating Officer Alisa Stack, Chief of Investigations and Enforcement Yaw Gyebi, Chief People Officer Debbie Hilton-Creek and Acting General Counsel Andrew Carter."

That was the first introduction of Hilton-Creek at a CCC meeting. Later in the same presentation, Sinclair formally introduced the new chief people officer to the commission and said she had been working at the CCC for two or three weeks at that point.

Since then, Stack has left the agency. So too has Chief Financial and Accounting Officer Adriana Leon.

No one contested the commission's ability to appoint an acting executive director during Monday's meeting, but the possibility appeared to be on at least one commissioner's mind. Commissioner Kimberly Roy at one point read from the state law that created the CCC and said she "just want[ed] to remind folks that this body, this board, has as a statutory authority" to empower an acting executive director in the case of an absence or vacancy.

Later on, Roy said she wanted to let the other commissioners know that she just recently learned that the memo delegating Collins' authority to other staffers was never signed by the executive director. She said it's a matter "that an acting ED may want to address."

"In the spirit of transparency, this was brought to my attention recently and I need to share this with you and this is my only opportunity to do so, that that delegation memo was never signed," Roy said. "So is it something that needs to be signed moving forward? I just needed to share that piece of information with you."

Upheaval has gripped the CCC for months, ever since O'Brien announced in July that Collins would be taking parental leave and then leaving the CCC by the end of the year. Since then, O'Brien has apologized, Collins denied that he has any firm plans to leave the agency and O'Brien has been suspended by Goldberg based on "[s]everal serious allegations" that were made by an unnamed commissioner and CCC staff about O'Brien's behavior. O'Brien's lawsuit is on hold pending a Nov. 7 hearing with Goldberg; it is still unclear whether that will be a public hearing.

Last month, the Massachusetts Senate's top Republican and four other lawmakers called on the Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy to open an oversight hearing to examine publicly reported problems at the CCC or to advance legislation that would stand up an independent internal audit unit within the agency.

The Legislature's Cannabis Committee is co-chaired by Sen. Adam Gomez of Springfield and Rep. Dan Donahue of Worcester.

House Speaker Ronald Mariano dismissed calls for greater legislative oversight of the agency during a Sunday appearance on WVCB-TV's "On The Record." Mariano declared that "Shannon O'Brien was in charge" of the CCC and made clear that he does not want to get in the middle of the ongoing battle between Goldberg and O'Brien.

"We're not involved in the hiring of the commission to run the the Cannabis Commission. That was done by the treasurer. I'm not gonna involve myself. ... She hired Shannon O'Brien. O'Brien runs the commission. The commission reports to Shannon O'Brien," the speaker said. "So I'm not gonna get in the middle of a hiring dispute between the authority that's hired ... especially while it's in court."

Mariano described the lawmakers calling for greater oversight of the CCC as "folks who want to get in the middle of a fight."

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