Ellen Kamei said she only intended to tie up a loose end.
But by bringing Mountain View’s cannabis ordinance back for revision Tuesday, the newly elected councilwoman ignited a firestorm of controversy.
Pot proponents called the move a slap in the face of the city’s electorate—68 percent of which voted in 2016 for legalization with Prop. 64 and 81 percent to tax it a couple years later. Former Mayor Lenny Siegel, who lost re-election last fall, declared it a troubling presage for local policy and democracy itself, and he told Kamei as much in a tense exchange at a recent ribbon-cutting. Cannabis groups threatened legal action or a 2020 ballot measure to supersede the council if need be. A pro-pot Change.org petition began making the rounds. And ex-Councilman Ken Rosenberg urged local officials to consider the implications for other industries should they change course on weed.
“How can a business expect to operate in an environment where they have followed all of the known laws and policies, have earned approval to commence with their business and operations (often at great expense of time and financial resources), only to find out that at the whim of a newly elected City Council, everything they have done right and by the law can be revised and taken away,” he wondered in a March 1 column for the Mountain View Voice. “It's simply bad policy, bad governing, and bad misrepresentation of the people the City Council is supposed to serve.”
The uproar began last month when Kamei, Councilwoman Alison Hicks, Vice Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga and Mayor Lisa Matichak moved to change up a process approved by last year’s council and already well underway.
Existing rules call for city planners to permit two cannabis storefronts and as many delivery services. Ten contenders—including heavyweights MedMen and Caliva—invested considerable resources to prepare business plans and line up leases by Feb. 1 just to have a chance at a lottery, which on March 27 will narrow the list to a final four.
On Feb. 12, by way of a cursory conversation from the dais, Kamei moved to agendize the cannabis ordinance for this Tuesday. The reason, she would later explain, was simply to revise zoning restrictions to make sure that none of the applicants would open a business by a planned elementary school.
“I’ve been clear with the press and residents and anybody who asked me,” she told San Jose Inside, “that this isn’t an up or down vote on legal cannabis.”
The problem is that it very well could be.
While industry reps expressed support for that zoning change, none of the applicants in the running pitched plans anywhere near that particular site. And the fear is that bringing the matter back for review without clarifying the narrow rezoning focus Kamei ostensibly wanted to bring forward risks the whole ordinance. One of the anti-cannabis voices on the council could, for example, propose a friendly amendment or substitute motion, which would have to be heard first. That would put the ball entirely in Kamei’s court if she wants to protect the spirit of the existing regulatory framework.
“Whether she meant to or not, she opened the door for the council, for her colleagues, to make substantive changes,” Silicon Valley Cannabis Alliance founder Sean Kali-Rai said.
Later, he added: “I’d be happy to support excluding the San Antonio site, but I wish there would have been more outreach and more conversation around it. They ought to be considering this after the lottery process and not now. I think it’s premature.”
If Matichak and Abe-Koga get their way and hew to the will of a vocal minority of residents, the city would halve the number of permits from four to two—something they unsuccessfully pitched before the last election changed up the council dynamics. And despite her effort to downplay the vote this week, Kamei has previously said she’d be open to the idea of scaling back permits, upping the 600-foot buffer required between pot businesses and schools or daycares or banning them from downtown altogether.
Only three members of the seven-seat council—Chris Clark, Lucas Ramirez and John McAlister—said they want to keep the ordinance as is.
As California cities figure out how to adapt to the state’s evolving regulatory framework governing cannabis, Kali-Rai said all eyes are on Mountain View. If the council rolls back the cannabis ordinance, he said industry organizations like California NORML and unions like United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW)—the only labor group to officially back Prop. 64—are ready to throw their weight behind a referendum that would instead increase the number of pot businesses.
“They’re ready to take this to voters,” Kali-Rai said.
UFCW Local 5 campaign chief Jim Araby, who spent the past several years organizing cannabis employees throughout the state, echoed Kali-Rai’s concerns and said he plans to speak out Tuesday against the watering down of Mountain View’s pot ordinance.
“Cities change from time to time, and I get it, but this is different,” he said. “Now you have all these businesses that acquired leases and make commitments just to qualify for this process that might change. It’s just bad public policy.”
WHAT: Mountain View City Council meets
WHEN: 6:15pm Tuesday
WHERE: City Hall, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
INFO: Click here to read the agenda