WAS THE IRONY LOST ON THE CITY COUNCIL?
I love Hanford. My daughter and I attended the Thursday Night Market Place about 10 times this season and my family went on the History Museum’s haunted city tour last year. I love the old brick buildings and the civic engagement of Hanford’s residents.
It’s not uncommon for their city council meetings to be standing-room-only and spend an hour on public comment. That kind of engagement does not happen everywhere. Neither does every city allow its public hearings to go on until every person who wants to be heard has their turn at the podium like happens in Hanford.
The November 5 city council meeting was no different, as every seat was taken and residents lined the walls ready to participate or just listen. Residents came to comment on a possible ballot measure on Hidden Valley Park, but more were there to participate in the public hearing awarding the second pot dispensary permit.
What was remarkable about November 5 was how Hanford did a 180-degree turn from voting against even the cultivation of recreational pot, let alone a dispensary, to handing out two storefront pot dispensaries – all in the span of 18 months.
The vote in April of 2018 was 4-1 against dispensaries and the cultivation of adult-use pot in Hanford’s Industrial Park. Only the cultivation, but not sale, of medical marijuana would be permitted.
Council member Martin Devine commented during the 2018 meeting that he agreed with the medical benefits of marijuana but did not approve of recreational use. Council member Sue Sorensen also voted against the cultivation of recreational pot. Council Members Art Brieno, John Draxler and Francisco Ramirez were not on the council at that time.
Fast forward a year and a half, and the city council voted to give a retail pot permit to Harvest Health and Recreation, the largest cannabis company in the United States. Harvest is now poised to set up an all cash, federally illegal business, in the heart of Chinatown with plenty of room to expand because most of the block where it is locating is for sale.
What could possibly go wrong?
The vote that night was 3-2, with Council members Devine, Sorensen, and Draxler voting to give Harvest the permit. Council Member Brieno has consistently voted against adult-use marijuana.
Council member Ramirez voted against Harvest Recreation and Health because the dispensary will be too close to WestCare. WestCare is substance abuse counseling center for 12 – 18 year olds that also provides recreational activities.
I do not know how the city made such a remarkable transformation in such a short time, but I do know there were some eyebrow-raising irregularities in the city’s choice of Harvest Recreation and Health.
First, two of the six companies applying for the permit were accused of bribing Dennis Fausone, landlord of WestCare. Both offered him money to kick out WestCare, sell the building, or stop his fight with the city over whether his tenant was a youth facility.
If Hanford’s lawyer deemed WestCare as a youth center those two applicants would have been automatically disqualified. One of those applicants was Harvest.
It was assumed that because the two applicants within 600 feet of WestCare attempted bribe Mr. Fausone that they would be disqualified from the process. But Hanford City Attorney Ty Mizote said that he had not received any evidence that illegal activity occurred on the part of any applicant, so announced the night of the public hearing that no one had been disqualified.
Second, Mr. Mizote owns commercial property close to several of the proposed dispensaries. This was considered a conflict of interests and Mr. Mizote said he would recuse himself.
But he didn’t recuse himself and continued to advise the city council on issues concerning the vetting process. In fact it was on Mr. Mizote’s opinion that WestCare was not a youth facility, and thus not in a sensitive zone, that the three council members voted to give Harvest the coveted permit.
Third, in the strangest 10 minutes of the evening, Mr. Mizote launched into a soliloquy, complete with power point, into why the youth facility, WestCare, was not a youth facility. Mr. Mizote talked of his childhood, grade school teachers, his office’s Halloween party, and then dissected the words “primarily” and “mainly” while the audience fidgeted uncomfortably.
The gulf of disconnect between the dais and audience was a palpable. Darleen Mata, Hanford Community Development Director, thanked Mr. Mizote for his “useful lecture” before a supporter of the applicant Hanford Facilities thanked Mr. Mizote, with a heavy dose of sarcasm, for his “English lesson.”
Fourth, out of the 100 or so people in the audience, not a one stepped forward during the public hearing to support granting Harvest a retail pot permit. When the floor was open to those opposed, about a dozen people spoke against Harvest or in support of giving the permit to a local, George Casares, owner of Hanford Facilities.
“I don’t understand why a local boy like me won’t be able to run a cannabis business in Hanford,” said Mr. Casares. He reminded the council, which appeared to have already made up its mind, that all the money spent at his business would stay in Hanford versus the profits earned by Harvest–which is based in Arizona.
Lastly, the next strangest 10 minutes happened when it came time to vote.
The council awkwardly squirmed in their chairs, looked down at their hands and computers in silence as Mayor Sorensen glared at them.
Apparently no one wanted to be on record as making the motion to grant Harvest the permit. After a confusing back-and-forth that was difficult to follow, no one would make the motion and Ms. Sorensen finally did it herself.
As mentioned earlier, the vote was 3-2 in favor of granting Harvest the permit, with Mr. Ramirez and Mr. Brieno voting no.
I am not recounting this strange meeting for the benefit of Hanford, though some will be relieved to see it in black and white. That ship has sailed and the city cannot rescind Harvest Recreation and Health’s permit without consequence. As most have read, Representative Devin Nunes is suing a fake cow for $250 million, so what do you think Harvest will do if Hanford casts a vote not in its economic interests?
And if you think that a chill cannabis company won’t sue then you obviously do not know Harvest’s CEO, Steve White’s former career – as a lawyer.
There are a few take-aways from Hanford’s experience for those city councils still sitting on the fence.
One, even if a proposed pot dispensary is not in a sensitive zone, maybe it’s still not a good idea to put the dispensary across the street from a substance abuse counseling center.
Two, on the same night you make a “Small Business Saturday Proclamation,” don’t let the irony get lost on you, when handing a priceless permit to the largest cannabis company in the United States, that your newest business neighbor will be siphoning off the profits to another state.
Three, giving an English lesson to bolster your case for one specific company to get a permit worth millions of dollars either makes you look arrogant or guilty.
When someone says, “Well, why don’t you come up with a number and we will see what we can do?” that’s a bribe. The offending company should be disqualified, because this is an all cash business and what better way to launder money?