Flanked by attorney Christopher Cataldo, left, and Reni George of Pure Roots, LLC on Sept. 23, Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Carl Marlinga listens to an audio recording of a July meeting with Warren City Council member Ronald Papandrea.

Flanked by attorney Christopher Cataldo, left, and Reni George of Pure Roots, LLC on Sept. 23, Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Carl Marlinga listens to an audio recording of a July meeting with Warren City Council member Ronald Papandrea.

Photo by Brian Louwers


Warren marijuana drama continues in court

UPDATE FROM COURT TUESDAY

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published September 24, 2019

 Medical marijuana provisioning center license applicants and their representatives moved to take photos of a final list of applicant scores displayed on monitors at the Warren Community Center auditorium following the public meeting.

Medical marijuana provisioning center license applicants and their representatives moved to take photos of a final list of applicant scores displayed on monitors at the Warren Community Center auditorium following the public meeting.

Photo by Brian Louwers

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MOUNT CLEMENS — Judge Carl Marlinga has again issued a restraining order enjoining the city of Warren from licensing medical marijuana dispensaries, pending further examination of the methodology used to score applications.

The judge’s ruling, announced on Sept. 24, came after a hearing spread over two days in Macomb County Circuit Court, where yet another business aggrieved over the city of Warren’s process for scoring dozens of applicants for up 15 medical marijuana provisioning centers has asked a judge to halt the process to ensure it plays out fairly.

Christopher Cataldo, an attorney representing Pure Roots LLC, alleged that Warren City Councilman Ron Papandrea went outside the provisions of the city’s ordinance governing medical marijuana facilities licensing when he applied a subjective “pass/fail” scoring system rather than a more objective consideration of 17 factors outlined in the ordinance.

Papandrea serves as a member the city’s Medical Marihuana Review Committee, along with Warren City Council members Cecil St. Pierre and Steven Warner, Public Service Director Richard Sabaugh, and City Attorney Ethan Vinson.

During the hearing on Sept. 23, Cataldo questioned Papandrea’s scoring methodology. The session included the playing of an audio recording captured on a cellphone during a meeting between Papandrea, representatives of Pure Roots, local chamber of commerce figure John Johnson and a Macomb County political consultant.

Pure Roots, which has already secured a license for a processing center adjacent to the Erma’s Original Frozen Custard shop at 14 Mile and Dequindre roads, seeks to invest up to $10 million and employ about 100 people if it secures a dispensary license, as well, for the property currently occupied by Erma’s.

According to the city’s ordinance, members of the committee “shall consider each applicant’s submission and rate the plans and applications on a zero (0) to ten (10) score” on each of 17 listed criteria.

Papandrea took the stand Sept. 23 to explain his comments during a meeting with Pure Roots. The meeting took place over lunch July 29 at a restaurant. With regard to the Pure Roots application, Papandrea can be heard stating, “I am against it for political reasons that have nothing to do with the value of the application.”

Upon further questioning by Cataldo, Marlinga and attorney Andrea Pike, representing the city and the members of the committee, Papandrea confirmed that he left the restaurant meeting to retrieve a piece of campaign literature that attacked him for supporting the replacement of a neighborhood ice cream shop with a medical marijuana dispensary. The attorneys and the judge later debated whether Papandrea’s comments were meant to express concern over the political implications for him as he seeks election this fall to a seat he was appointed to three years ago, the proposed development’s potential impact on the neighborhood, the overall good of the city, or some combination thereof.

“I’m talking about a bunch of irate villagers with torches,” Papandrea said.

He also said he felt he had enough flexibility within the scope of Warren’s ordinance to assign weight to any of the 17 criteria, as reflected in his overall score.

“I can rank them and rate them according to my own priority, and my priority was doing what’s good for distressed areas of the city,” Papandrea said.

Of the potential influx of investments from medical marijuana businesses, Papandrea added, “This is a godsend for the city. If it’s used properly, it will be great for the city.”

Reni George, employed to handle government relations for Pure Roots, called Warren’s process the “most tainted” he’s seen in places the company does business. Pure Roots was not on the list of the top 35 license scores compiled by the committee. George told the court the final list, displayed at a court-ordered public meeting of the committee held Sept. 20 at the Warren Community Center, was pretty much the same as lists — including a handwritten version — that were circulated among applicants and officials prior to the committee’s final recommendation.

Pike argued that Pure Roots filed the lawsuit “because they are unhappy with the score they received.”

She added that Papandrea “wasn’t trying to play political games,” and asserted that Pure Roots is seeking to delay the process until after the city’s November election — with several of the committee members already set to leave office, and Papandrea facing an election challenge — in alleged hope of scoring better with a new batch of officials involved.

“I don’t think replacing five people with five more people would get the same results. And I think that’s why we’re here today. They don’t like the result,” Pike said.

Cataldo countered, “If you really look at this and have an objective set of criteria, it shouldn’t matter who applies them.”

He added, “There hasn’t been that fair, objective evaluation based on the criteria that’s in the ordinance, but some arbitrary set of factors by at least one of the people on the committee.”

The hearing continued Sept. 24 with final arguments from the attorneys.

Given the opportunity for checks and balances at the city level that include full City Council consideration of the committee’s recommendations, a possible mayoral veto and a veto override, Marlinga expressed a reluctance to weigh in with the “heavy hand of a circuit court judge” to effectively tell elected officials what to do. The judge added, however, that the Medical Marihuana Review Committee is made up of both elected and nonelected officials, tasked with “ministerial duties” prescribed by city ordinance.

“The ordinance, as I said, is the city’s problem. It’s unnecessarily complex,” Marlinga said. “I think it was a foolish thing to embark on, but it’s the ordinance and the law is the law. For the same reason that I don’t like being here at all, I’m not going to try to change the ordinance, but I’m darn well going to enforce it.”

At the agreement of the attorneys, Marlinga ordered the parties to appear again Oct. 8, when he will consider lifting the restraining order or granting a preliminary injunction pending further proceedings. He seemed open to allowing Papandrea to change his scoring and indicated that he wanted to learn more about the methodology used by other committee members through a series of depositions to be scheduled prior to the next hearing.


Other lawsuits remain pending
As agreed by attorneys in a separate lawsuit that resulted in a previous restraining order granted by Marlinga, an open meeting of the Medical Marihuana Review Committee was held Sept. 20 in the auditorium of the Warren Community Center. The meeting was scheduled to correct a possible violation of the Open Meetings Act alleged by another license applicant.

A total of 13 meetings of the committee were held behind closed doors, but it was discussed during court proceedings that 12 of them could have been subject to privacy provisions afforded by law.

The majority of those in attendance at the meeting Sept. 20 clearly had an interest in the outcome of the scoring process. Audience participation at the meeting, with comments limited to one minute per speaker, according to the stipulated court order, included many representatives of license applicants. Some openly questioned the process and the scoring mechanism. Others simply asked for fair consideration.

After audience participation, Papandrea, in accordance with a provision of the court order, moved to adjust his score for one applicant, BDECo, from 85 to 170 — the maximum allowed. The move would have propelled the company into the city’s top 15. Sabaugh countered by lowering his score for the company from 158 to 60.

“The problem here is Mr. Papandrea, changing his score from 85 to 170, if we recommend 15, he moves BDECo up into the top 15, and the one who’s 15th is out,” Sabaugh said.

Papandrea responded, “I just want to put on the record that a lot of these applicants had similar names and doing business as, and my original scoring was simply mistaken. I provided an affidavit to the court to that effect. My original scoring was mistaken; I’ve corrected it now. So be it.”

With BDECo one of the companies now engaged in legal action with the city and members of the committee, Sabaugh pressed Papandrea further. “You submitted an affidavit to court, or to the attorney suing us? Did you give that affidavit to the attorney representing the city? No, you didn’t,” Sabaugh said. “Our attorney had to get that affidavit from the person suing us.”

Papandrea responded, “So what. So what. So what.”

The Sept. 20 meeting ended with auditor Plante & Moran’s presentation of the amended total scores. The auditorium was abuzz as applicants and their representatives in attendance moved to capture photos of the list of the top 35 applicants displayed on projection monitors on both sides of the stage where the committee members sat at the City Council table.

Cataldo arrived after the meeting to serve Vinson with the Pure Roots lawsuit.

At least four lawsuits related to the city of Warren’s medical marijuana licensing process now remain pending in Macomb County Circuit Court.

Warren Mayor Jim Fouts holds a wild card in the form of a pledged veto of any council action on medical marijuana licensing. While the City Council has already overridden several mayoral vetoes on the issue, it is currently unclear whether the votes to override are there currently. The council would need five votes to override.

Warren’s city elections will be held Nov. 5.

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