Pushing forward

Oroville council majority overturns mayor’s attempt to put cannabis cultivation on the ballot

Rep. Doug LaMalfa makes his case against legalizing commercial cannabis in Oroville at a City Council meeting that was moved to the State Theatre to accommodate the roughly 200 attendees.

Rep. Doug LaMalfa makes his case against legalizing commercial cannabis in Oroville at a City Council meeting that was moved to the State Theatre to accommodate the roughly 200 attendees.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Shortly after midnight, Linda Dahlmeier picked her papers off the makeshift dais on the State Theatre stage. She’d just finished presiding over a marathon meeting of the Oroville City Council Tuesday night (Feb. 20) at which, like the previous session with cannabis on the agenda, provoked passions all around.

On Jan. 16, before the council voted 5-2 to instruct city staff to draft a “seed-to-sale” commercialization ordinance, public comment spanned three hours, punctuated by appeals to Christian morality and callbacks to Reefer Madness (see “Drama at the dais,” Newslines, Jan. 18). The council even heard from Congressman Doug LaMalfa, via a letter read by field representative Laura Page, delineating his objections.

Tuesday night—the meeting moved from cramped council chambers to accommodate the crowd, approximately 200—ordinance opponents Dahlmeier, the mayor, and Councilman Scott Thomson presented an alternative: put commercial cannabis before the voters.

Dahlmeier linked this agenda item to one requesting a ballot measure for a city sales tax increase. Their notion inherently corresponded to the final item, authorizing a contract for cannabis-related consulting services.

Some of the same speakers returned, reinvoking fire and brimstone. A visiting pastor from Southern California invoked Compton, Hawthorne, gang violence and crime—plus cast aspersions on council members’ integrity, for which he later apologized.

Butte County Supervisor Larry Wahl, who represents Chico, spoke against legalization; so did LaMalfa, in person. Of the 40 people who spoke to the proposed ordinance, half opposed cannabis, a quarter supported, and a quarter wanted voters to decide.

Ultimately they—and the rest of Oroville—wound up pretty much where they started 5 1/2 hours earlier.

Thomson’s motion to put commercialization on the November ballot failed, 5-2, with only he and Dahlmeier in favor. The council voted the same way to hire Fairfield-based SCI Consulting Group for up to $39,000 to advise the city on both the cannabis and sales-tax proposals, the latter passing 7-0.

Afterward, Dahlmeier seemed resigned to the ultimate outcome of cannabis commerce.

“There’s always a chance” the council might not adopt an ordinance, she told the CN&R, “but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

The ordinance on the table, which Acting City Administrator Donald Rust said several times is a “draft” only, would permit cultivation, manufacturing, distribution and sales. Dahlmeier said cannabis businesses are looking at “large spaces in the industrial area.”

The mayor clumped the cannabis and tax measures to accentuate city finances. At her prompting, Finance Director Ruth Wright explained that the deficit ($1.8 million) and pension obligation ($73 million) would have the city insolvent in three or four years.

Linda Draper, one of three council members who toured dispensary-friendly Shasta Lake, said that while “revenue is nice,” the issue for her is about “the freedom to choose.” She’s not a cannabis user—it’s not in her “church’s health code”—but Draper doesn’t feel she should deny access.

Dahlmeier repeatedly cited election returns for Measure L, a 2016 county initiative for medical marijuana commercialization, that failed by 55.7 percent in Oroville. “Why do council members think they can trump city voters?” she posed.

“I’ll tell you why,” Councilman Jack Berry replied, saying he talked to over 200 people across “the whole gamut” who are “overwhelmingly in favor” of commercialization. He added, “I’m speaking for them.”

Based on applause, LaMalfa spoke for many in the auditorium, though not all (he was the target of several jeers and barbs). He raised the specter of lost federal funds should the city sanction a drug the U.S. government deems illegal. Twice, including at 11:25, he encouraged the council to “table” an ordinance.

LaMalfa told the CN&R afterward he came in a “hybrid” role, not just a federal representative but also as a concerned citizen, saying “This is the town I’m tied to.”