Sonoma City Council votes to study cannabis petition rather than allow a November vote

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When faced with two clear paths – to approve a validated petition to legalize cannabis businesses in Sonoma, or put the measure up for a vote in November – the City Council chose the third.

At the council meeting on Monday, July 23, the cannabis petition was the major agenda item that drew a sizeable audience to the Council Chambers. Following a series of options outlined by city attorney Jeff Walter, and bypassing the choice of either approving the petition as city ordnance or putting it on the ballot for voters to decide, the council instead opted to order a 30-day, $25,000 study on the proposed ordinance, a study that would be delivered well beyond the Aug. 10 deadline for placing the measure on the November 2018 general election ballot.

The next firm opportunity for a public vote, according to Walter, would be in 2020, as there are no statewide elections scheduled in 2019.

“I’m gobsmacked,” Jon Early of Sonoma Citizens for Local Access said immediately following the meeting. It was a sentiment he elaborated upon in a subsequent conversation with the Index-Tribune. “You’ve got to expect anything, but I didn’t expect that.”

The study-and-delay option was always available to the council, but few thought it was a direction they would go, given the 60-plus percent of Sonoma voters who supported Proposition 64 to legalize adult use in 2016, and the 767 valid signatures Early collected on his petition to amend the city municipal code.

But Michael Coats, one of Early’s allies in the petition process and vice president of the new Sonoma County Cannabis Enthusiasts, said they should have seen it coming. “We thought that by turning in over 700 signatures that the will of the voter would have carried the day.

“In hindsight, if we had all done our homework better, and looked at everything that’s come before this council, we probably would have seen that the same three people are (always) voting against it,” meaning cannabis availability in Sonoma.

Those three – Gary Edwards, David Cook and Mayor Madolyn Agrimonti – formed the majority on the proposed motion to fund the study, and thus delay the inevitable election, leaving Rachel Hundley and Amy Harrington in the minority.

But the drama of the close though not unexpected votes followed over an hour of council discussion and public comment from a dozen citizens in attendance, a range of whom – Larry Barnett, Erin Carlstrom, Bill Boerum – favored the immediate acceptance of the petition as a city ordinance, without the expense or trouble of a vote.

Even such opponents as Georgia Kelly indicated support for putting it on the ballot, though she doubted that once people had a chance to evaluate the proposal it would pass. (Kelly did not support immediate adoption, as earlier misreported.)

But a relative newcomer, Phoenix Asher Featherstone, came up with a prescient perspective. “I absolutely love cannabis,” she enthused, “it has saved so many people’s lives, it has so many wonderful medical attributes.” Adding that she had been in the industry a long time as a cannabis club owner in San Francisco and a major grower, she then took a step back.

“The reason that the California legislation has allowed each city and county to determine how they want to legalize it is because there are towns this small… I think option number three is great for you, it gives you some time to make the right decision for this very small town… I encourage you to take your time, because you’re going to want to get it right.”

When it came back to the council for discussion, the familiar rift between the five members was clearly, if politely, expressed. Nearly all, however, agreed with the sentiment of several in the audience that the petition offered a far-from-perfect proposal for cannabis dispensaries in Sonoma.

“It seems like Mr. Early is trying to railroad something through,” Rebecca Baker said, tangentially questioning the motives behind several recent efforts whose backers “insist that their project go forward at the expense of the community’s wishes.”

The doubts centered around Early’s open involvement in redeveloping a property on West Napa Street that conveniently falls outside the school, park and other setbacks his petition outlines.

Walter reiterated the choices the council had, one of which was to put a competing measure on the ballot to give voters a choice. Hundley proved she had already thought that one through, presenting an 18-page draft alternate cannabis measure to the council members (with plenty of copies for the audience in attendance) that would authorize up to two dispensaries and more completely define its terms than Early’s petition.

Her initiative did nothing to sway any votes, however, and with the clear objective of delaying Early’s petition a place on the November ballot, the council opted to fund a 30-day study of what the measure’s impact “would have on the community were it to be passed by the voters – fiscal impact, land use, traffic congestion, etc.”

When called to vote on the study, Harrington said firmly, “I would rather buy every single child that cannot afford school supplies, school supplies for those who need them for as long as it takes to run through $25,000, before I would spend a penny on a further study.”

The study was approved on the 3-2 vote; it was followed by a last-ditch attempt to limit the cost of the study to just $10,000, on a measure proposed by Harrington and seconded by Hundley. That was defeated 2-3, split along the same fault line.

Though the petition supporters were clearly in shock following the votes, it wasn’t long before they rallied. “There is one more city council meeting before the Aug. 10 deadline,” said Coats, pointing to the scheduled Aug. 6 meeting. “Theoretically if they changed their mind with that stupid stinky (gingko) tree, somebody could change their mind.”

And if that doesn’t work, both Early and Coats pointed out there’s always the Nov. 6 general election, with three seats on the Sonoma City Council up for grabs.

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