Court bars Warren from licensing medical marijuana facilities

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published September 6, 2019

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MOUNT CLEMENS — A judge has ordered the city of Warren to halt any effort to approve or issue medical marijuana facilities licenses after questions and allegations of impropriety about the process were put forth in two new lawsuits.

A temporary restraining order, issued by Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Carl Marlinga Aug. 23, remained in place at press time. The lawsuits were filed late last month by DNVK 4 LLC, and BDECo. I Inc. and BDECo. II LLC, businesses looking to operate licensed medical marijuana provisioning centers in the city of Warren.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit filed by DNVK 4, along with the city, are Warren City Council President Cecil St. Pierre and Public Service Director Richard Sabaugh. Both serve on a city subcommittee tasked with processing the city’s medical marijuana facilities licenses.

St. Pierre and Sabaugh are also named in the lawsuit filed by BDECo., which also lists City Council members Ron Papandrea and Steven Warner, and City Attorney Ethan Vinson, who also serve on the committee.

In an added twist, the plaintiffs in both cases are being represented by attorney David Griem, who preceded Vinson as Warren’s city attorney.

At issue, according to the lawsuits, is the committee’s scoring and approval process for license applications, and its practice of closed-session meetings, which the lawsuits liken to “backroom dealings.”

The lawsuit filed on behalf of DNVK 4 alleges that the defendants “improperly rated” the plaintiff in order to “enact its bias and favoritism to certain applicants.”

“This process certainly is not awarding licenses to the most qualified candidates,” the lawsuit surmises, adding that it is not transparent and is not following the city’s ordinance.

The lawsuit also alleges, “based upon reasonable belief and suspicion,” that a “pay to play scheme occurred,” which “directly resulted in favoritism” and “complete disregard” for the ordinance.

Attorneys with Berry Moorman PC, hired to represent the city of Warren and its officials named in the lawsuits, filed a motion in the DNVK 4 case seeking to dissolve the temporary restraining order that has halted the licensing process and to deny the request for a preliminary injunction.

In their motion, attorneys said the judge’s order prevents the subcommittee from making its licensing recommendations to the City Council at a public meeting, pursuant to the review and scoring process outlined in the city’s ordinance. Citing an affidavit from Vinson, the motion states that the role of the subcommittee is “to make a recommendation, not a decision,” and that the defendants “deny all allegations” of “any impropriety in determining the top 25 scores.”

The motion filed by the defense also claims that the subcommittee’s meetings included “plans and information from applicants that they likely would not like shared with their competitors, confidential interviews of applicants and other information” considered by the committee. The filing claims that information “does not benefit the public” as further attempted justification for the closed-door meetings.

Even before the lawsuits were filed, concerns about the city’s licensing process and the committee’s closed sessions were raised by residents and other members of the Warren City Council.

Warren resident Sarah Garvey is a medical marijuana patient who uses it as an alternative to pharmaceuticals for treating symptoms resulting from lupus, fibromyalgia and herniated discs.

Garvey said she wanted to serve on the licensing subcommittee and brought her concerns about its operations to the council earlier this year when she couldn’t find information about the meetings.

“I believe residents, for and against, at least one of each, should also be on this committee,” Garvey said. “The backroom meetings are just ridiculous. We all want to know what’s going on.”

Council members Kelly Colegio and Scott Stevens voted against an increase in the number of potential licenses from 10 to 15 in July, and both railed against the committee’s closed-session meetings.

On July 9, Stevens said Vinson’s opinion that the subcommittee is not subject to the rules of the Open Meetings Act because it is not a “deliberative body” and that its actions can be closed was a lie.

“I told you so. They were up to no good,” Stevens said when asked about the lawsuit on Sept. 4. “They were pulling shenanigans. That’s the way they always are.”

Colegio, who has consistently opposed the city’s licensing process and has long expressed concerns about potential legal issues, added that she’d like to see the process redone “in a transparent way.”

“There have been several council meetings where I brought up the fact that I thought they were in violation of the Open Meetings Act,” she said Sept. 4. “Now that the judge has given that ruling, this has come to a screeching halt. I think it’s an embarrassment for the city to have a council president and our city attorney, and another attorney, all sitting on that committee, yet none of them can figure out the glaringly obvious fact they were in violation of the Open Meetings Act.

“Personally, I believe the whole process has been rushed from the beginning to the end by the way they would come in and add agenda items at the last second, without holding public hearings for them,” Colegio added. “You can hear their sense of urgency when they’re talking. They’re trying to get the job done when they’re in office.”

A hearing in the DNVK 4 case was held in Marlinga’s courtroom on Aug. 28, and the judge ordered the restraining order kept in place afterward. A further hearing on the preliminary injunction will reportedly be scheduled after Sept. 12.

A series of depositions in the DNVK 4 case for St. Pierre, Papandrea, Sabaugh and Warren Mayor Jim Fouts were scheduled to begin Sept. 6, after press time.

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