Mayor called upon to step down over handling of marijuana notice
Notice on retail store moved on by mayor with no notice to council
Goldendale Mayor Clinton Baze had 20 days to tell the Washington State Liquor Control Board (LCB) the city either approved or disapproved of a marijuana retail store opening in the city. He was also free to ask for an additional 20 days if needed. If his response was not received within that time, the LCB would assume the city had no objection. The document offering him this opportunity was a Notice of Marijuana License Application sent by the LCB to the mayor.
Baze sent no response. Nor did he mention or bring the Notice to the city council when he received it.
The Notice was dated June 6 this year. The city council did not see it until Nov. 3.
While Baze has repeatedly insisted the city council was well aware of the incipient opening of the retail store all along, some members of the council say the notice was weeks before any clear indication of movement toward the opening of the store was brought to the council or the community. They are also incensed that the mayor never informed them of the notice until someone on the council specifically asked if he had received such a document and, if so, to see it. That request was finally fulfilled in an executive session meeting of the council on Nov. 3.
"We heard a rumor that there was such a document received by the mayor from the Liquor Control Board," says council member Guy Theriault. He did not identify the source of the rumor, though another council member told The Sentinel he heard about it from City Administrator Larry Bellamy. "So we asked to see it. We saw it for the first time at that last city council meeting."
Theriault says he is beyond frustrated. "We asked the mayor why he didn't show it to us when he first got it," he recalls. "He said because it was just another regular license request, like a liquor license, and therefore it didn't need to go to the council or anyone else. Because of that, the council had no say in it at the very beginning. His reasoning is wrong-you can't treat this as if it were a normal, everyday process when something of this nature comes in, something that violates federal law."
Baze stands by his explanation. "It was a regular license request, like a liquor license," he states. "We get them all the time. We don't bring every license request like that to the city council. We checked out the applicants and they were clean, and the location specified was beyond the 1,000-feet requirement from certain public places. They were in compliance with state law. So we made no objection."
It's uncertain who the mayor includes in saying "we," given that majority of the city council-like the city voters' majority who voted against I-502-disapproves of the store. That council majority expresses strong emotions about Baze's unilateral step that opened the way for the store to open. While all the council members were contacted for comment for this story, only four of the seven responded.
"It's very upsetting," states council member Lucille Bevis. "We never saw that notice until five months after it arrived."
"It was not only incumbent on the mayor to bring that notice to the council," says council member Len Crawford, "it should have been absolutely obvious to him to do so. It's in contradiction to federal law. By not giving us that notice, he set the city council up to fail if this turns into a legal turmoil, which it could. This should have been handled in June."
While proponents of legalized marijuana dismiss out of hand the notion that federal law will ever take state law to task on the issue, entities that advise county and municipal governments take that possibility very seriously and have urged caution. In an advisory article in the September/October 2014 issue of CityVision Magazine, a publication of the Association of Washington Cities that provides training and guidance to municipal authorities, Hilary Bricken of the Canna Law Group wrote, "Washington cities and counties are using federal illegality as a basis for banning cannabis businesses." She added that even though the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) provided a memorandum to U.S. Attorneys on certain federal priorities that could leave marijuana law enforcement to state law authorities, the memorandum was not legally binding. "And it does not change federal law," she wrote. "The federal government remains able to enforce federal law even against I-502 businesses that are in compliance with all state laws." The article advised Washington cities to carefully consider "the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws where their own local business licensing and permitting for cannabis businesses may be construed as violations of federal law because that licensing or permitting operates as an 'endorsement' of marijuana cultivation and distribution. These cities and counties could fear federal prosecution of their civic leaders and the loss of federal funding." The article ends with a statement of certainty that sooner or later the issue will make its way to the highest state court.
Federal courts have not hesitated to strike down state laws that contradict federal law; as recently as Nov. 8 this year, Judge Susan Bolton of Federal District Court in Phoenix ruled that an Arizona law on immigration was invalid because it conflicted with federal authority. For the present, federal authorities have turned blind eyes on Colorado and Washington. No one at any federal level has given assurance that will remain the case indefinitely so long as federal law still prohibits sale of marijuana.
"Given the sensitivity of a pot shop coming to a city that had previously voted against the matter, I feel it was absolutely incumbent that the mayor inform the council, regardless of his own feelings," says council member Mike Cannon. He, too, presses the point about federal law. "While business permits normally do not come before the council, when they involve breaking federal law and the controversy of legalizing pot, common sense would demand consulting with the council and notifying the public."
Cannon adds that city government has been secretive. "Transparency is essential to a good government, and it seems to be sorely missing in our city administration," he says. "In addition to training on transparency, I feel training on avoiding conflicts of interest is needed by city leaders, including the council. In hindsight, significant information was not disclosed at times the council was asked to vote on various issues." Cannon calls the way the pot shop issue was handled an awful mess and a sad turn for the community.
Baze dismisses the complaints about not revealing the LCB notice. "I understand how they feel," he says. "But the reality is, we can't treat one business any differently than any other. It's not fair." Despite Klickitat County and Goldendale having voted against I-502, to Baze the state's passage of I-502 trumps local consideration. "It's the law," he says. "I'm just doing my job."