Jason Walsh: Sonoma cannabis initiative up in smoke

Petitioners upheld their end; council should have let voters decide on pot initiative.|

Democracy is like the weather: Everybody talks about it, but nobody ever does anything about it.

That much was true July 23 when the Sonoma City Council put the kibosh on a signature-qualified Nov. 6 ballot initiative to let the voters decide whether cannabis dispensaries should be licensed within the city limits.

Such a community referendum was in play after cannabis activist and dispensary hopeful Jon Early gathered 767 valid signatures for a ballot initiative to allow for commercial use, cultivation and manufacturing of cannabis in Sonoma – a staunch rebuff of the council’s three-member majority who have generally agreed with Councilmember David Cook’s concern that a dispensary would be a stain upon Sonoma, the “jewel of Sonoma County” (Said jewel is clearly not emerald.)

But in a vote of 3-2 – with councilmembers Amy Harrington and Rachel Hundley dissenting – the council quashed any possibility of such a decision winding up in the hands of the voters when it called for a 30-day “study” on the proposal – killing its chances of meeting the deadline to qualify for the November ballot.

It was the safest move for the council’s cannabis skeptics – Cook, Gary Edwards and Mayor Madolyn Agrimonti. After all, you never know what the voters may do when given the chance. Heck, 64 percent of Sonoma voters were in favor of Proposition 64’s statewide legalization of the loco weed, and Mr. Early gathered more than enough pro-dispensary signatures necessary by a comfortable margin.

The three-member council majority may have thought: Whoa, the voters may actually pass this thing.

Not wanting that to happen, they instead voted to spend $10,000 to $25,000 to kill the initiative with a “study.”

The above use of quotation marks around “study” is no AP style point. Because gathering more information about the issue is not the council’s goal. The city has already studied the effects of the commercialization of legal pot; it’s spent the past two years placing moratoriums on its cultivation and commercial use while consultants pocketed ample sums mentoring city officials about a post-Prop. 64 world. Councilmember Edwards on July 23 even suggested re-hiring the consultants from the last study for the new study because they’d already be up to speed.

And when City Attorney Jeff Walter asked the three councilmembers what specifically they’d like to study about the initiative, Cook and Mayor Madolyn Agrimonti had no direction to offer, though they did support Edwards’ list of concerns, which primarily questioned the economic benefits of, and ability of enforcement for, legal marijuana. (Both valid questions, though neither are the responsibility of this initiative to answer.)

This vote wasn’t about a study of the initiative – however, the city will have to fork over $10K to $25K for the pretense. Nor was it about placing an initiative more to the council’s liking on the ballot.

That much was clear when Councilmember Hundley, who felt Mr. Early’s proposal was flawed, introduced a rough draft of her own competing ballot initiative (which would have licensed a single dispensary based on responses to a city RFP) for her colleagues’ consideration.

It garnered zero discussion at the dais.

No, this was not about a study, or drafting an improved dispensary initiative: This vote was about ensuring no dispensary initiative comes to the November ballot, period. At least that’s what the Sonoma County Democratic Party had to say about it.

The local branch of the Dems, a partner of the state party, as well as the DNC, last week issued a resolution blasting the Sonoma City Council’s decision against placing dispensaries on the ballot – describing the “study” (they used quote marks, too) as a “pretext” with the “clear objective of denying” the valid petition a place on the Nov. 6 ballot “in an effort to delay a vote…”

The resolution described such citizen petitions as encouraging “robust civic participation that enhances the democratic process.” It went on to name-check “past-endorsed members Madolyn Agrimonti and David Cook” – which reads like a veiled threat of withholding future endorsements -- to “reconsider their decision to block the citizen petition” and to “take a clear stand in favor of transparency and accountability, and against corruption and cronyism.”

To call it a stiff rebuke of the council is understatement.

But this council hasn’t always been opposed to community-driven initiatives.

In 2016, the council unanimously approved a signature-qualified referendum on the controversial leaf blower ban – despite only Hundley and Edwards supporting the overturn of the ordinance.

“Let the voters decide,” Edwards said at the time.

“If this goes to an election, we’re finally going to get to the end of it,” agreed Cook.

Agrimonti, who had voted for the leaf-blower ban, also conceded the community’s right to make the decision on its own behalf.

So what changed? Why are Sonoma voters suddenly incapable of making an informed decision on the costs or benefits of allowing a cannabis dispensary? Some have said the proposed initiative is flawed – it doesn’t include enough specifics, such as a tax rate for sales. Maybe residents wouldn’t vote for it then. Or, maybe they still would. The council members would have ample opportunity to try and dissuade voters if they choose -- even actively campaign against it. And they’d have a chance to vote “no” or “yes” on Nov. 6 just like everybody else. It’s the way democracies are supposed to work.

There’s no shortage of governing bodies across the globe which believe its citizens can’t be trusted to vote the way its office holders would like – we don’t need another one in Sonoma.

In America we denounce voter suppression; we demonize authoritarianism; we lionize the “popular vote.”

In Sonoma, we’ve had community votes on taxes, hotels and even gardening tools.

But there won’t be a vote on cannabis dispensaries this fall. Though, according to cannabis advocates unhappy with the July 23 decision, perhaps there will. Three council seats are up for election on Nov. 6 – one of them looks like it will be an open seat.

Everybody talks about democracy.

But nobody ever does anything about it.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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