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City Council moves forward with pot dispensary

Sonoma officials on Monday gave the green light for the city’s first-ever commercial cannabis business.

The city council voted 4-0-1 at its Dec. 14 meeting to grant a conditional certificate to Santa Rosa-based Sparc, enabling the cannabis company to potentially open its planned dispensary at 19315 Sonoma Highway in 2021. Councilmember Jack Ding recused himself from the vote due to living in close proximity to the location of the proposed dispensary.

The approval of the certificate brings to an end a months-long process to select the potential recipient of the city’s lone dispensary license – a process that has found the council at odds over a perceived financial conflict of interest for one of its members, while other members have questioned the appropriateness of the city awarding a monopoly for a single business to operate in a potentially lucrative industry.

Council loggerheads aside, some members of the public simply wanted city officials to fulfill their long-held goal of getting a pot dispensary operating in the city limits.

“I know there have been many twists and turns since you (originally) voted to select Sparc,” said resident Josette Brose Eichar during the public comment portion of the meeting. “But, please, can we leave all that behind and move forward with… the goal of getting this up and running in 2021?”

The most notable twist Brose-Eichar was referring to took place earlier this fall when Councilmember Rachel Hundley recused herself from an Oct. 5 vote to finalize approval of Sparc as the city’s only licensed pot shop.

Prior to that Oct. 5 vote, it was reported that Hundley’s husband, political consultant Sean Hamlin, had been contracted by Sparc to lead a campaign to defeat a measure on the Nov. 3 ballot that would have allowed for competing dispensaries in town.

Though Hundley denied any financial conflict of interest existed – and she appealed to the state Fair Political Practices Commission for guidance - calls for Hundley to recuse herself mounted. When a response from the FPPC didn’t come in time, Hundley agreed to recuse herself from the vote, resulting in a 2-2 tie and no action taken on the use certificate. Hamlin, meanwhile, abandoned the campaign and said he never took any payment from Sparc.

While council members last month agreed to revisit the Sparc certificate, the issue of Hundley’s alleged conflict of interest remained. Hundley said the FPPC decided not to issue an opinion on her standing, since the Oct. 5 vote had passed, rendering the question over a conflict of interest “hypothetical.”

But with the license back up for a vote on Monday, the conflict-of-interest question wasn’t hypothetical for Councilmember Amy Harrington, who engaged in a contentious back-and-forth with Hundley over the matter.

“I agree that there should be a dispensary, and probably two, in this town,” said Harrington during her time to make comments. “I have said previously that what was revealed in the newspaper about Councilmember Hundley being in a financial relationship with someone who has business in front of the council…”

But Hundley interrupted: “Keep your comments about yourself, I don’t have a financial relationship with anybody.”

“It’s my time (to speak) Rachel, don’t interrupt me,” Harrington responded.

“Well how about we stick to the facts here?” continued Hundley. “Why don’t we stick to what is true?”

Harrington took a moment to remind attendees of meeting protocol.

“If you don’t agree, then when it is your turn to speak you may say why it is you don’t agree,” admonished Harrington. “But on a civilized council, I am allowed to say what I would like to say and you can refute that during your time. So right now I am saying what I want to say.”

Harrington went on to say she had been “disturbed” to learn that Hundley’s husband had entered into a “financial relationship” with Sparc.

“I think it is unethical to profit from work that is a matter pending before the city council - and California is a community property state, so when your spouse receives payment from someone, you are entitled to 50 percent of that payment - and that is wrong,” said Harrington.

Hundley, during her turn to comment, denied any “financial arrangement between my husband and anyone who has anything to do with this process.”

“Now that we’ve established that fact,” said Hundley, “I would like to return to the issue that is at hand which is our cannabis process.”

Hundley noted the five years she has been working on the cannabis process while on the council and described it as “really exciting” to be at the point of voting on a potential dispensary operator.

“We knew it was going to be bumpy,” Hundley said of the city’s road toward commercial cannabis. “Did I know that I personally was going to be a target of things that are not true? No, I didn’t think that. But, for anyone out there who has any confusion about this is, there is zero relationship between me, my husband or anyone who has been involved in this process.”

Mayor Logan Harvey said he was pleased that residents were a step closer to having access to a local dispensary.

“This is about justice and equality for a product that has been illegal for far too long,” said Harvey. “And it should be legal and accessible to adults who’d like to use it.”

According to Sonoma Planning Director David Storer, the next step is for Sparc to apply to the Sonoma Planning Commission for a use permit for its Sonoma Highway location and, if it receives that, Sparc would then apply to the city manager for the commercial cannabis license.

Email Jason at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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