Weed city manager, county clerk in battle over cannabis referendum

Skye Kinkade

Verification of signatures submitted as part of a referendum to stymie Weed’s indoor cannabis cultivation ordinance has turned into a battle between County Clerk Laura Bynum and Weed’s City Manager Ron Stock.

Upon a second review of the 175 signatures submitted by referendum organizers last Wednesday, Bynum determined there are a sufficient number to trigger the referendum process.

Stock disagrees, alleging the review “destroys the clerk’s credibility.” He said the Weed City Council may seek to have a court review Bynum’s actions to “independently determine the number of valid signatures.”

Bynum said her review was to ensure transparency for all involved. “I simply just did the job I was elected to do, and apparently Mr. Stock is not happy with the outcome of the referendum petition,” she said.

136 or 137?

The second review of signatures was prompted by the central question: how many signatures constitute 10 percent of Weed’s 1,361 voters? Bynum determined the magic number is 136, while Stock believes it’s 137.

Referendum organizer Jennifer Dickinson submitted 175 signatures to Bynum’s office on May 8.

On Tuesday, May 13, Bynum issued a County Clerk’s Certificate, confirming that 175 signatures had been filed and she reviewed 143 of them. Of those, 136 were found “sufficient,” seven were “not sufficient” and one was a duplicate.

Weed City Manager Ron Stock saw that number and determined the referendum was one signature short of what he believed is the required 137 signatures. He sent out a press release explaining his determination and said the city’s indoor cannabis cultivation ordinance was in effect, since the referendum movement was unsuccessful.

Bynum, however, disagreed. She cited two elections codes in her assertion that only 136 signatures are needed to make the referendum effort successful.

When Stock challenged the number of necessary signatures on Tuesday, May 14, Bynum initiated a second review of the signatures.

In her second, full check, Bynum looked at all 175 signatures and determined that there were 171 “sufficient” signatures – more than enough to meet the referendum requirement. She announced the results of her second check on Wednesday morning, May 15.

Stock doesn’t agree with how Bynum handled the situation.

“Shortly after being informed that 136 signatures was insufficient to force a referendum, (Bynum) demanded, as the Registrar of Voters, that the City of Weed accept her opinion that 136 signatures were sufficient,” said Stock. “We did not intend to allow the County Clerk to amend state law.”

Stock went further, saying that he is suspicious of some of Bynum’s findings the second time around.

“Her first certification stated that there were only 143 signatures verified, 136 sufficient, 7 not sufficient, and one duplicate,” he said. “The second certificate now has 175 signatures verified, 171 sufficient, 4 not sufficient, and no duplicate signature. If her numbers were consistent, in other words if there were 7 or more not sufficient and at least one duplicate in the second certificate, I could have a greater confidence in her accuracy.”

Bynum took issue with Stock’s words.

“If he reads the certificate that was issued on May 13, it states that there were 175 signatures in the raw count, the number of signatures that were verified was 143, thus leaving a remaining 32 signatures that were not reviewed,” Bynum said. “During the full check, that included the remaining 32 signatures that were not reviewed in the certificate issued on May 13, it was determined that three signatures were inadvertently marked as not valid, which were corrected and reflected on the certificate dated May 14.”

“Reviewing petitions is a ministerial act and the voters of our county expect that the County Clerk would perform this duty without bias,” said Stock. “Unfortunately, cannabis is an issue where people have strong opinions, either in favor or against. And the County Clerk is clearly allowing her personal bias to affect her actions.”

“For Mr. Stock to say that the data was manipulated is false and misleading,” said Bynum. “For him to state that I am performing my duties with bias is simply untrue. This office is a non-partisan office and is neutral on this issue and I simply wanted to provide transparency to the parties involved.”

What’s next

Regardless of the contention surrounding the verification of signatures, the Weed City Council will be presented with Bynum’s findings at its next meeting on June 13.

The council has “a number of options,” said Stock, who added that he has reached out to the Secretary of State’s office for guidance as to how to proceed.

The city council could put the issue to vote, either at a special election or the November, 2020 general election.

“I do not believe that anyone would object to the city council placing the ordinance on the regular election ballot for November 2020. There is an expense to doing so. But the council has a strong faith in democracy and there appears to be a sufficient number of individuals within our community that would like to participate in this decision making. Erring on the side of allowing more voter involvement would appear to be the better solution.”

The cost of an election varies, and is less when a ballot question can “piggyback” with a general election, because Weed would share the cost with other agencies who have questions on the ballot. The cost would most likely be in the thousands.

The city could also ask a court to take a look at the issue, Stock said, since the matter doesn’t have to be presented to the voters for more than a year.

“Or, the city could simply not honor the clerk’s second determination,” said Stock in defiance. “We have conflicting certifications. Perhaps the council has the right to determine which it will follow.”

Cannabis businesses

Stock said although the city’s Commercial Cannabis Cultivation Ordinance is not in place due to the referendum process, he has been working with individuals requesting commercial growth licences.

He said he met with two individuals this week who requested commercial growth licenses.

“The first one is minor in size, uses an existing structure which is located in the proper zone district,” said Stock. “I intend to issue this license when the paperwork is complete to the city’s satisfaction under Ordinance 441-2017. The second requires approval of a structure or structures to be built. I will assist that developer in getting before the Planning Commission and the City Council for possible approval. If the structure(s) are approved under our zoning ordinances, I will again issue the permit under Ordinance 441-2017.”

“This is an interesting point,” Stock continued. “The petition (according to referendum proponents) was to prevent commercial growth. But the only thing it accomplished was to eliminate protections for the city and regulations imposed on growers. I will attempt to limit these bad results as best I can with limitations on the licenses I issue.”

Dickinson, who spearheaded the “Stop Commercial Growing” movement in Weed, said despite discussion about what the ordinance does and does not address, growing cannabis inside city limits is “not a good business venture for anyone in the City of Weed because of the resources the businesses will consume.”

She pointed again to water and electricity usage, which she believes would be tremendous. Dickinson said this is one of the main reasons she and other proponents would like the voters to decide.

“That is, if the council does not altogether repeal (the ordinance) at the next council meeting,” Dickinson added.