Business / Economy

San Juan delays decisions on pot dispensaries, fire contract

City leaders want more information on both issues before finalizing them; will reconsider at the Nov. 9 meeting

The San Juan Bautista City Council held a special meeting Nov. 4 to reconsider its ordinance banning marijuana dispensaries, as well as the proposed fire services contract with the City of Hollister. By the time the gavel sounded ending the meeting, both topics were rescheduled until next week.

While the majority of public comments and council discussion concerned the marijuana ban, the fire services contract drew the ire of the council because they thought it was so poorly written that they needed more time to study it to figure out their next move.

“At our last meeting this item came up in the public comments section, so what we’re going to do is talk about it some more and listen to what you folks have to say, but there will be no action taken tonight,” said Rick Edge, vice mayor.

Attorney Aaron Johnson, who represents the Coastal Growers Association, said the organization has been advocating for positive change in allowing dispensaries and other cannabis-related businesses within the city limits and the county. He told the council there are a couple of deadlines of which they need to be aware.

“Jan.1 is the deadline that if you choose to go forward with a dispensary model, you would want to get that into place as soon as possible because you’re allowed state permits on a priority basis,” he said. “If your regulations are in place, then you get a permit by Jan. 1, 2016. The other aspect you should look into is cultivation, which needs to be addressed by March 1, 2016.”

He said there is a good opportunity for city leaders to engage in dialogue with medical marijuana advocates.

“I think you’ll find that the cannabis community is very responsible and they want a legitimate environment and bring a community benefit to the transactions that are occurring around us every day,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of medical issues being treated and yes there can be potential for abuse and there can be danger associated with cannabis-related businesses. That’s exactly why we need to bring into a regulated environment and tax it accordingly, and make sure the people in the business are held accountable. That’s why I’m here to advocate for a dispensary, at least one or even two for this area.”

Edge asked Johnson if the city needs to pass an ordinance that allows cultivation or is it already allowed by state law. Johnson said it’s a gray area and that under the concept of "permissive zoning" zoning code needs to delineate what is allowed subject to a use permit.

“What state law has said about cannabis cultivation is that it’s an agricultural product,” Johnson said. “As an agricultural product, there’s debate if it needs to be explicitly permitted. What’s best is that the city take a position and adopt a regulation allowing for cultivation.”

Sharon Bush said she wants to open a medical marijuana dispensary in San Juan Bautista.

“I know there’s going to be a lot of consideration against the dispensary, but we’ve heard here that it would be a good opportunity for the city to get extra revenue income,” she said. “I know there’s been concern about the police department, but I feel it would be beneficial to be able to assist in putting up a new substation and getting more police officers.”

She said the city is losing potential revenue as people travel to San Jose and other cities to buy medical marijuana. She told the council that she has been thinking about where a dispensary might be located, but realized it would be difficult because of the historical buildings and nearness to playgrounds.

Health educator Martha Lara, with the San Benito County Public Health Education Program, spoke against the use of marijuana as a health concern.

“Although our program focuses on tobacco prevention and education, we do see marijuana as a public health concern, as well,” she said. “As with tobacco, marijuana has been associated with respiratory disorders and increased cardiovascular problems.”

She said the risk of legalizing marijuana is that it would become more normalized and would lead to negative health consequences.

Elia Salinas, of Panacea Epione, addressed potential tax revenues.

“The most you could apply a tax to this type of business is 10 percent,” she said. “If you (a dispensary) make $1 million a year—I know they’re making more than that—that would be a $100,000 a year tax revenue. That could be used for public safety, schools or go into the general fund.”

She offered to help the city craft an ordinance.

“Let’s face it, people who are writing the ordinances are lay people,” Salinas said. “This is fairly new to everybody, so if you have people who are in the industry to give some input it would be beneficial to you.”

She argued against Lara’s claim that marijuana is dangerous and addictive.

“If you want to stop smoking it, you can stop tomorrow,” Salinas claimed. “I believe in the medicinal use of it. I’ve seen what it can do for children with epilepsy. We’re not trying to glorify it or say it’s for kids under 18. That’s not what we’re trying to do.”

Councilman Tony Boch reminded the council that at the previous meeting they determined to wait until the state passed laws that would allow cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana.

“Obviously, that has not occurred,” he said. “I’m wondering why we’re here right now. Looking at our present ordinance, the feds have not changed one thing. They have not said marijuana is legal. Until things change we should leave this ordinance the way it is.”

Discussion went back and forth on the minutia of the ordinance, but by the end of the meeting, the council decided to agendize it for the next meeting, Nov. 9, to discuss whether to keep it as is or expand it or repeal it.

Fire Contract Discussion

The tone of the discussion on the fire contract between Hollister and San Juan Bautista was in differing degrees—depending on the council member—of frustration because of what they claimed to be the vagueness and lack of specificity of the contract’s wording, and the fact that no representative from Hollister showed up for the special meeting.

After the marijuana ban talks ended, council chambers pretty much cleared out, leaving just five members of the public, along with Supervisor Anthony Botelho,  for the fire contract talks.

The council was disturbed by what most of its members felt was a poorly written document, with hand-written changes. Edge suggested that they take it under advisement and refer the matter to the council’s regular meeting. Councilman Chris Martorana felt they should move forward because they have had the contract for a month.

Mayor Robert Lund expressed reservations.

“A few years ago, we had a lot of verbal communications that went right out the window,” he said. “Everything needs to be in stone as the management that we are contracting with, and not just the city. We already saw when we had another fire chief in and everything just changed and there were no repercussions about anything they did. We had no control.”

“I think that’s the nature of the contract,” said City Manager Roger Grimsley. “We write in there that we have a level of service that we expect and tighten it up a little bit.”

Edge said the wording of the contract has been changed.

“They’ve taken out the word ‘city,’ referring to Hollister, and replaced it with ‘contractor.’ This is not the same contract we’ve had all along,” he said. “The bottom line is we haven’t had a chance to look it over as far as whatever other changes they’ve made. My point is, how we can discuss it if we haven’t looked at it? This was at the committee level a very long time and when it finally came to us as a contract that we could look at it had flaws. Now there’s been some penciled-in changes. If they want to propose something, then why isn’t it all typed up nice and neat?”

Martorana answered Edge, saying “While I can appreciate your point, but regardless of how many versions they’re going to provide us, there’s a bunch of stuff we want to see in here that I think they’re never going to put in unless we do. That’s the conversation we should be having.”

The council finally agreed to have another special meeting—that would follow a public hearing— to discuss what they want in the contract and give it back to the City of Hollister for its officials to sign. Before adjourning, Councilman Tony Boch asked Supervisor Botelho how the county is doing with its fire contract.

“We signed our contract and how we worked it is, we went back and forth in committee,” Botelho said. “Supervisor Jerry Muenzer and myself are on the fire committee and we met with our staff a number of times and then our staff went to the Hollister staff and we incorporated the changes that we wanted to have. I haven’t seen your contract. This is a City of San Juan Bautista jurisdictional issue. It’s a contract between you and Hollister.”

He said that he, as supervisor, also has a lot at stake.

“This is a key station for me, so I’m really hoping that you’re able to come to an agreement to the terms that best serves the City of San Juan,” Botelho said. “Rest assured the county recognizes this as being a station that is very much needed in the unincorporated area, and without this, some other provisions will have to be made. This is why we have the fire committee and why we shouldn’t be having this dialogue between the three jurisdictions because there are going to be problems. We knew it from the start. We knew it wasn’t going to be a smooth process because it’s a big change.”

The council decided to reconvene the meeting until Nov. 9 at 6 p.m. 

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected].