License applicants, attorneys and other interested parties move to take photos of the final list of provisioning center license applicants scored by Warren’s Medical Marihuana Review Committee on Oct. 7.

License applicants, attorneys and other interested parties move to take photos of the final list of provisioning center license applicants scored by Warren’s Medical Marihuana Review Committee on Oct. 7.

Photo by Brian Louwers

Warren OKs dispensary licenses despite controversy, lawsuits

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published October 11, 2019


WARREN — Legal battles and political intrigue will linger on, but a batch of up to 15 medical marijuana dispensaries are now closer to opening their doors in the city of Warren.

After months of hearings with dozens of license applicants, weeks of court proceedings stemming from court challenges, and allegations about a controversial review and scoring process that some claimed was “tainted,” City Council members voted 5-2 Oct. 8 to approve the licensing recommendations of the city’s Medical Marihuana Review Committee.

The vote came just hours after a Macomb County Circuit Court judge lifted a restraining order that barred the city from taking action to approve licenses. The order was put in place after a lawsuit filed by one of the applicants, Pure Roots LLC, questioned the scoring process utilized by City Councilman Ronald Papandrea, who sits on the review committee with fellow council members Cecil St. Pierre and Steven Warner, Warren Public Service Director Richard Sabaugh and City Attorney Ethan Vinson. Councilman Robert Boccomino serves as an alternate.

The committee was established by the council as part of an ordinance adopted to govern the licensing process for medical marijuana facilities.

At issue in the lawsuit was the scoring system used by Papandrea, who told the court he essentially used a pass/fail system that effectively weighted certain criteria, including location, more than others. According to the ordinance, 17 criteria were to be scored from zero to 10, with zero equaling a lack of compliance and 10 exceeding requirements.

Papandrea’s controversial scoring methodology came to light after representatives of Pure Roots produced audio recorded during a meeting at a Warren restaurant last summer. Papandrea could be heard on the recording stating, “I am against it for political reasons that have nothing to do with the value of the application.” He later testified that he felt he had enough flexibility within the scope of the ordinance to assign weight to any of the listed criteria, as reflected in his overall score. He said he was concerned about political blowback from plans by Pure Roots to put a dispensary in space currently occupied by Erma’s Original Frozen Custard Shop at 14 Mile and Dequindre roads.

On Sept. 24, Judge Carl Marlinga ruled that Papandrea’s methodology fell outside of the city’s ordinance and put a temporary restraining order in place. A follow-up hearing was scheduled for Oct. 8, the day of the Warren City Council meeting, when Marlinga lifted the order after Papandrea amended his scoring at a public meeting of the review committee the night before. Sabaugh also amended his scoring to reflect its original number, reversing a change made in protest after a last-minute alteration by Papandra at yet another public meeting ordered previously, which changed the final version of the top 15 recommended license applications.

Papandrea and Sabaugh made those initial changes at a public meeting held on Sept. 20 at the agreement of attorneys in another lawsuit, filed by license seeker DNVK 4 LLC. That dispute included allegations that the review committee violated the Open Meetings Act by holding more than a dozen closed-door sessions. Marlinga, also presiding over that case, granted a temporary restraining order enjoining the city from approving dispensary licenses until the committee held a public meeting to allow limited public input, permit committee members to change their scores and publish those scores as tabulated by an outside auditing firm.

Despite the City Council’s approval of the licenses on Oct. 8, Assistant City Attorney Mary Michaels said four other lawsuits remained pending. Two others were expected to be dismissed.

St. Pierre, Papandrea, Warner and Boccomino were joined by Councilman Keith Sadowski in voting to approve the committee’s recommendations.

“It’s a little emotional for me because I’ve seen how this can help people,” Sadowski said. “This process has just angered me. It’s angered me to the point that we’re sitting here today because of the way things were handled. This should be a very easy thing to be passing tonight, but it seems like this process was just wrong.”

He added, “Here we are tonight because one council member took it upon himself to do his own process, to do his own voting.

“If the mayor vetoes this, I’m not sure what I’m going to do, but I will support this tonight,” Sadowski said.

Warren’s two at-large council members, Kelly Colegio and Scott Stevens, didn’t support the motion to approve the recommendations. Colegio voted no. Stevens, apparently acting in accordance with the court’s determination that he has the authority to vote in favor of applicants outside of the committee’s recommendations, voted for those that fell between 24 and 38 on the final list.

Stevens was deposed at the request of the defense counsel as part of the Pure Roots lawsuit, along with all members of the committee. Depositions from the committee members were sought by Marlinga after Papandra testified, to learn more about the scoring methodology used by others.

Attorney Christopher Cataldo, representing Pure Roots, addressed testimony from the Stevens deposition when the case resumed in Marlinga’s court on Oct. 8, before the restraining order was lifted.

Stevens testified by deposition that it was suggested to him by Sabaugh after a meeting at City Hall in June that he should mine binders full of medical marijuana license applications for names and addresses, to be used in a mailing list for political fundraisers. He said he opted not to do that, but did say he later saw checks for St. Pierre and Boccomino at the council office, and that he later learned they were from license applicants.

“They each got $1,200 checks,” Stevens said in the deposition, a copy of which was obtained by the Warren Weekly. “They were put in envelopes, and somehow they got into my mailbox in the council office, and I put them in their boxes. I brought that up at a council meeting, too.”

“This is problematic,” Cataldo told the court. “This is just one instance we’ve learned about, really creating the appearance that there’s something going on here in the city of Warren.”

Attorney Andrea Pike, representing the city, took exception with the insinuation.

“One thing that was a little bit offensive was that this (plaintiff’s) supplemental brief says pay to play three times. He (Cataldo) had absolutely no proof of the ‘pay-to-play’ allegation in the complaint because your honor asked him,” Pike said.

She also produced an affidavit from St. Pierre in which he attested that he never received a check in that amount or another at the Warren City Council office. He added that he didn’t recall Stevens asking him about a check from a dispensary applicant, and that he didn’t remember receiving one.

Boccomino later said, “I don’t know where he (Stevens) came up with that. It’s an untruth. It’s unfortunate.”

Marlinga ruled on Oct. 8 that the evidence was “too thin” to warrant ordering a preliminary injunction that would have kept the city’s process from moving forward. He added, however, that the court could reverse the granting of licenses and refer the matter to state or federal law enforcement for investigation if a strong enough case for that emerges going forward.

Before the vote was taken later that night to approve the licenses at the Warren City Council meeting, St. Pierre addressed the process.

“We have toiled over this. Nobody’s rushing to judgment,” St. Pierre said. “This is a new industry. This is a legal industry. This is an opportunity to improve the city of Warren. This is an opportunity to improve industrial areas.

“They’re doing it in Center Line. Hazel Park is doing it. Why not the city of Warren? If it’s going to improve the city, create jobs and create income for the city in the form of taxes, then we should do it.”

Colegio said she voted against the process from the beginning out of concern about the potential for costly lawsuits.

“When this ordinance first came through, I voted no on it and I stated that the way it was written, we were going to get lawsuits. And here we are: multiple lawsuits. And who pays the bill for that? Warren taxpayers pay the bill for that,” Colegio said. “Shenanigans is a mild word, in my opinion, for what we seem to see occurring here.”

Three weeks after he promised to veto any council action on medical marijuana dispensary licenses, Fouts followed through and issued a veto on Oct. 9. The mayor said previously that while he’s not opposed to medical marijuana and actually voted to legalize it, he was concerned that the license scoring method was “flawed” and that it would result in costly lawsuits.

City Council members would need five votes to override the veto at the next regular meeting on Oct. 22. That will also be the last meeting before the Nov. 5 election, when all of the council members, with the possible exception of Papandrea, will leave office.

Papandrea is running for election in District 1 against challenger Melody Magee.