Jun 02, 2021
Marin County’s Division of Weights and Measures: Keeping Fingers Off the Scales
Jun 02, 2021
By Mary Sackett
What is “Weights and Measures”? The scale of justice? A third-grade math assignment? The latest fitness craze? The Marin County Division of Weights and Measures ensures equity in the marketplace and protects our economic health and welfare by inspecting commercial weighing and measuring devices and verifying retail price accuracy to ensure consumers receive the lowest advertised or posted price. Inspectors test and seal a wide variety of devices, including: gas pumps; meters such as electric, taxi, and water meters; weighing devices such as scales at grocery check-out stations, deli scales, and livestock scales; and point-of-sale systems. The Division of Weights and Measures touches nearly every aspect of our daily activities, protecting our pocketbooks to ensure we are getting what we pay for with every transaction.
Price Gouging and Short Packaging
Last year, Weights and Measures collaborated with the Consumer and Environmental Protection Unit of the Marin County District Attorney’s Office to investigate numerous instances of alleged price gouging. In March of that year, Governor Newsom signed Executive Order N-44-20, making it unlawful to increase the price of food, consumer goods, or medical and emergency supplies by more than 10 percent. No one will soon forget that toilet paper, hand sanitizers, cleaning supplies, and certified masks were scarce in the spring of 2020, thus a prime target for price gouging. During a time of such economic disruption and hardship, it was up to inspectors from Weights and Measures and the DA’s office to work together to ensure we were paying reasonable prices.
Weights and Measures also looks for “short packaging.” A container may state it holds 16 ounces, and actually hold 16 ounces, but be sized for 24 ounces. Short packaging deceives consumers that they are purchasing more than what they actually are. Fortunately, it is illegal. Weights and Measures takes evidence of “short packaging” to the District Attorney for further action.
In 2019, Marin County joined 26 other counties to conduct statewide price verification inspections at retailers in low-income and underserved communities. While pricing errors affect all consumers, they have a disproportionate effect on low-income households. The result was a report entitled, The Value of Statewide Support & Coordination of Weights and Measures in the Marketplace: Necessary Advantages for Disadvantaged Communities (Dec. 2019). Sadly, the report found, “Within Disadvantaged Communities economic impacts and marketplace overcharges run 3.8 times higher than the frequency of any past county or state survey results completed in the past nine years.” Frequent overcharging and failed price verification inspections have led many high-profile businesses to enter settlements and many others are subject to court injunctions. Per publicly available court records, businesses with current and past injunctions and/or settlements include: 7-Eleven, BestBuy, CVS, Kohl’s, Office Depot, Petco, RiteAid, Safeway, Staples, Target, Walgreens, and Whole Foods.
A New Leader
Weights and Measures is a division of the County Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures, which has 14 employees and an annual budget of $3 million. In Marin County, we are fortunate to have a brand-new Agricultural Commissioner/Director with a long history of commitment to consumer protection: Stefan Parnay. Parnay grew up in Sebastopol, earned a bachelor’s degree with honors in ornamental horticulture from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and has managed and prepared the department’s budget for more than a decade, including the implementation of budget reductions during challenging times. Announcing the appointment on May 25, County Administrator Matthew Hymel said, “We are fortunate to have someone with Stefan’s skill and ability leading the department forward, especially as we confront the challenges of a major drought.” Parnay commented that he is looking forward, “to continuing the critically important work we have collectively been doing in response to the pandemic, racial equity, climate change, the drought crisis, and more.”
The agriculture side of the department has a wide variety of programs, including:
- Promoting sustainable agricultural practices through its organic certification program;
- Providing education on integrated pest management principles and strategies;
- Inspecting plant shipments for invasive pests of agricultural crops and horticultural plants;
- Inspecting farmers markets;
- Providing support for the management of invasive weeds;
- Implementing a livestock protection program; and
- Producing an annual livestock and crop report.
By verifying the accuracy of devices used in commercial transactions and ensuring price accuracy at retail businesses, Weights and Measures saves Marin consumers money every day. If you believe you were overcharged or notice something not quite right, please reach out to the department’s Consumer Help Line at 415.473.7888.
Mary Sackett serves on the Board of the Marin County Bar Association. She is licensed to practice law in the states of California, Iowa, and West Virginia. She is Aide to Marin County Supervisor Damon Connolly, serving District 1, San Rafael.