City Council back-pedals on medi-pot ordinance

Panel also votes to retain redevelopment agency

“We’re being bullied.”

That was the general feeling conveyed at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting related to medical marijuana, the “we” being the city and the bully being the federal government. Under vague threats of prosecution—city staff, including council members, could go to jail for conspiracy, according to U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner—the council backed down, voting to repeal the dispensary ordinance it passed just last month.

“When you get a letter from the U.S. attorney addressed to yourself, that really opens your eyes,” said Mayor Ann Schwab. She was referring to the letter Wagner sent her just days before the council approved the ordinance July 5. “The eyes of the federal government are on us as elected officials.”

City staff tended to agree. City Manager Dave Burkland and City Attorney Lori Barker made a trip last month to Wagner’s Sacramento office to try to understand better what the city could do to keep from being prosecuted. Neither could offer any specifics gleaned from the meeting, other than the dispensaries’ facility size seemed to be an important factor. The message that did get through, loud and clear, was that city officials could face prosecution for conspiracy by allowing for facilities meant for the manufacture and distribution of marijuana.

“I don’t understand how a conspiracy charge could be held up,” countered Councilman Andy Holcombe, also an attorney. He pointed to several ways in which the ordinance could be reworded to clearly state the intent of the law is to provide safe access to medicine for seriously ill patients. “It really comes down to intent.”

Surprisingly, only 16 members of the public showed up to offer their opinions on the matter, and they varied from members of the Chico Police Officers Association, which has already come out publicly against the ordinance, to those involved in local dispensaries, who pleaded for the ability to offer a safe, legal way for patients to obtain their medicine.

Some, like Chamber of Commerce President Jolene Francis, suggested that not repealing the ordinance would be “calling their bluff.” Others, like local blogger Quentin Colgan, considered repeal nothing short of cowardice. “This is when we need the City Council to stand up for us—stand up to the bully,” he said.

“We are being bullied. But we’re being bullied by the federal government,” acknowledged Vice Mayor Jim Walker. “I don’t like this at all. I think we should take a breath and revisit this—maybe six months is the right amount of time to do that.”

Holcombe shot back: “We’ve taken enough breaths; it’s time to exhale. We’re not thumbing our noses at anyone—this is about protecting sick people. I think we can—and should—stand up to the bully.”

In the end, though a majority of the council seemed to agree that some sort of similar ordinance ought to be in place at some point, a motion to repeal by Councilman Mark Sorensen carried 4-3, with council members Holcombe, Scott Gruendl and Mary Flynn—who posed the curious question of how Chico happened on the U.S. Attorney’s radar in the first place—dissenting.

Though that might seem like enough fun for one evening, there was plenty more on the agenda—though nothing quite as juicy (though Walker gets props for using the word “antidisestablishmentarianism” accurately in a sentence).

The future of the Chico Redevelopment Agency was put before the council, with two options on how to proceed: Keep it as is but pay a large mandatory fee, mostly toward education; or disband it altogether and receive about $1.6 million for the general fund. Staff recommended the former, as it would allow the city to retain control over redevelopment properties and projects and would, in the future, continue to earn money through property taxes for future projects.

“We’ll be paying a short-term price for a long-term benefit,” Schwab said, referring to the one-time $10.7 million fee. “The RDA gives us leverage to put projects together that, annually, provide 150 private-sector jobs—that’s a great investment in our community.”

The council voted unanimously to continue the RDA as is. They can vote to dissolve it at any time in the future.

In other news, the council approved an ordinance calling for mandatory no-wood-burning days when air quality is poor, 5-2, with Councilmen Sorensen and Bob Evans dissenting.