Council spars over number of medical pot licenses in Warren

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published July 12, 2019

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WARREN — A move to increase the number of licenses for medical marijuana dispensaries sparked a heated discussion among the mostly lame-duck members of the Warren City Council July 9.

The session boiled over into allegations of impropriety, malfeasance and slander. At issue was a late addition to the council’s agenda: the requested approval of a measure to boost the number of medical marijuana provisioning center licenses permitted in the city from 10 to 15.

The item ultimately passed by a vote of 5-2. City Council members Cecil St. Pierre, Ron Papandrea, Keith Sadowski, Robert Boccomino and Steve Warner voted to approve the expanded number of licenses, while Kelly Colegio and Scott Stevens voted against it.

“The proposals that have come before this medical marijuana committee have been really overwhelming, and there is, how do you say, people that are very interested, No. 1,” St. Pierre said. “The type of money that they’re investing is unbelievable, No. 2, and No. 3, they’re going to do entire developments in addition to the provisioning centers. In addition to maybe even grow centers, they’re going to do entire strip malls and improve properties where it really needs to be done.

“With this type of energy and this type of investment in developing the city where it’s mostly needed, we’ve considered this and are making this recommendation to go from 10 up to 15.”

The council originally approved an ordinance last year addressing the provisions of Michigan’s Medical Marihuana Facilities Licensing Act, approved by the state Legislature in 2016. The act runs parallel to the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act that was approved by nearly 63 percent of the state’s voters in 2008. The ordinance set rules and limited the number of provisioning centers (dispensaries), growers, processors, secure transporters and safety compliance centers. It also restricted the facilities to industrial areas with the exception of dispensaries, which can locate in “C3” commercial zones.

A subcommittee of council members was established at the time to review applications from potential facilities operators. Colegio questioned that process last year and again raised concerns about it on July 9 after a debate between Stevens and City Attorney Ethan Vinson over whether the subcommittee’s meetings can be held in closed session or whether they are subject to the Open Meetings Act.

“I can’t think of another subcommittee that this council sits on that is not open to the public and that can be a closed session. That’s why we have to post those subcommittee meetings,” Colegio said. “That’s why we post it, because it’s a public meeting. I just think it would be better, and would look more honest and transparent, if those meetings were open to the public, because nothing should be discussed there that the residents shouldn’t be able to hear anyway. We’re trying to vet people to get a license with the city of Warren. All of that should be transparent.”

St. Pierre, Warner and Papandrea all sit on the subcommittee, while Boccomino serves as an alternate. St. Pierre said notice of the meetings was posted.

“I don’t recall anyone ever wanting to come in the meeting, despite the fact that they’re posted,” he said.

That response brought out jeers from the audience, just ahead of the vote to approve the increased number of dispensary licenses.

Vinson said previously that the subcommittee, which also includes members of the administration of Mayor Jim Fouts, isn’t subject to the same rules of the Open Meetings Act that govern city meetings of elected officials.

“Because the subcommittee is not a deliberative body. Its function is to make recommendations and its actions can be closed,” Vinson said. “There have been court cases to that effect.”

Stevens sharply objected to Vinson’s statement.

“Excuse me? That’s an out and out lie,” Stevens said.

Vinson offered to share examples of legal rulings as “decided by the state Supreme Court” should Stevens care to review them. He said Stevens was “wrong” to state the committee could not meet in closed session.

Stevens went on to suggest that elected officials had taken campaign contributions from those interested in securing medical marijuana facilities licenses. He said those parties have also donated money for projects in the city.

“This council is so out of control and you’re so much carrying the water of Jim Fouts, it’s unbelievable,” Stevens said. “Thank God this is the end of this council.”

St. Pierre responded by saying, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mr. Stevens. You’re just being libel(ous). You’re being slanderous and you’re just making stuff up.”

Fouts later accused Stevens of playing politics because of a recent court ruling that made him ineligible to seek re-election as a City Council member this year.

“The people voted on it. They want it. I can’t argue with it. I’m not involved in it. I originally vetoed (the city ordinance). They (the City Council) overrode it. That’s the end of my involvement with it,” Fouts said. “I’m not going to get into this issue with marijuana because right now he (Stevens) is lashing out, because he’s not on the ballot. He came to me and wanted my support.”

Virtually the entire Warren City Council will change over after the city’s November election, with only Papandrea remaining on the ballot in the council’s District 1. Colegio is running for mayor and Sadowski will be on the ballot running for clerk. Boccomino, St. Pierre, Warner and Stevens were removed from the ballot last month after a legal challenge over term limits. Stevens has since announced his intention to seek election as a mayoral write-in candidate.

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