Legal jeopardy and weed

Allegations of malpractice leveled at Chico’s city attorney at meeting with cannabis on the agenda

Chicoans protest the City Council’s decision to look into commercial cannabis deliveries and sales, starting with the formation of a committee.

Chicoans protest the City Council’s decision to look into commercial cannabis deliveries and sales, starting with the formation of a committee.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

A closed session item became controversial during the Chico City Council’s regular meeting Tuesdsay evening (March 5)—an unexpected turn considering the agenda largely focused on cannabis regulation.

That’s what happened when public speakers alleged malpractice on the part of the city attorney and called on the council to terminate its contract with his firm, Alvarez Glasman & Colvin, which has offices in Yountville and outside of L.A.

The closed session item: Chico Scrap Metal’s (CSM) lawsuit against the city, alleging that the council made CSM an illegal business by adopting the Chapman-Mulberry Neighborhood Plan while refusing to help find it an alternative location. The owners are requesting personal damages and attorney’s fees.

City Attorney Vince Ewing, ostensibly the subject of the comments, was absent for this discussion. In fact, he’s been absent in the chambers for months, which Councilman Karl Ory said has not been explained to the council. Instead, the city has been working with Andrew Jared, the deputy city attorney.

Jared has maintained that Ory should refrain from participating in any closed session conversations regarding any of the CSM-related cases, citing a “common law conflict of interest.” That stems from Ory having participated in a citizen signature-gathering referendum effort dubbed Move the Junkyard, which called for the former, conservative-majority council to rescind its decision to allow CSM to stay put, or place the issue on the ballot. The city subsequently sued Move the Junkyard—and Ory—and after multiple appeals on both sides, the council ultimately rescinded the ordinance.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Ory protested, calling for an independent review of his alleged conflict of interest. “There is a suggestion here I’m being silenced, so that a contracted employee’s agenda can go forward and not be embarrassed by their mistakes,” he said.

Chico attorney Richard Harriman, who previously represented Ory, elaborated to the CN&R by phone: “The city attorney, Vince Ewing, advised the City Council that Chico Scrap Metal had a duty to pay the [city] attorney’s fees … that were going to be incurred in suing Move the Junkyard and Karl Ory. And that advice was wrong.”

At the meeting, Harriman told the panel the city should bring a legal malpractice claim against the firm, because the city taxpayers are out at least $200,000, and “the City Council, as public trustees, has a duty to collect that money. They can’t just waive it.”

Aaron Haar, a city park commissioner, said the whole saga “has been a jobs program for an L.A. law firm” and “it’s time we get our own attorney.”

Ewing was not able to comment before deadline.

Ultimately, the majority of the council voted 6-1 (Councilman Sean Morgan dissented) to delay consideration of any cases regarding CSM for two weeks, while an independent legal opinion is sought.

Earlier that evening, while the panel discussed the composition of a Commercial Cannabis Citizens Advisory Committee, things got heated at the dais.

As Ory began to criticize the “draconian actions” of the former conservative-majority council, led by then-Mayor Morgan, Morgan retorted by calling Ory an “asshole.”

What followed was a convoluted series of substitute motions and several friendly amendments, as the panel tried to come to a consensus on who could serve on the committee and a timeline for reporting back to the council.

Ory and Stone then got into an awkward, unrelated standoff about Ory making “incorrect” assertions about meeting procedures. This prompted Councilman Scott Huber to ask his colleagues to remain polite and “set a better example.”

Ultimately, the council decided to create an advisory committee that will consider the regulation of commercial cannabis, with discussion including but not limited to the types and number of businesses allowed, where they can be located, and the permitting process. Committee members will apply and be chosen by the council, and must include representation from several areas, including business, realty, education and the cannabis industry. City staff, including a law enforcement and code enforcement representative, will be present.

The vote fell 4-3, with Morgan and Councilwomen Kasey Reynolds and Ann Schwab dissenting. Schwab advocated for a slower process, adding that more questions need to be answered, including the implications of moving forward while cannabis is federally illegal, potential impacts on crime and how much the city could gain in taxes—or lose to a black market if those taxes are too high.

More than 20 attendees spoke to the issue, most in protest of the effort. Many cited fears of increased crime and easier access for children. More than a dozen picketed outside the chambers before the meeting.

Pat Jones advocated for a crime-prevention committee, and said she was concerned about increased cases of illegal activity and mental illness. “You’re really playing with the lives of a lot of our teenagers and our students at the college,” she said.

Speaking for the other side, Jessica MacKenzie, head of the Inland Cannabis Farmers’ Association, said there is a mature, robust cannabis industry that has been here for more than 20 years—and it has been unregulated.

“I don’t think the conversation is about ‘cannabis is good, cannabis is bad,’” she said. “I think the conversation is about, we have an unregulated industry that we’re trying to move into a regulated industry, where we can benefit from revenue, we can benefit from controls, we can benefit from safety, we can benefit from jobs.”

There will be a two-week nomination period for applicants wishing to be on the committee.