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Downers Grove

'I do think we’ve failed from a process standpoint.' Barnett apologizes for council's handling of pot issue

DOWNERS GROVE - A three-hour debate on the merits of allowing recreational marijuana sales in Downers Grove ended Oct. 8 with an apology from Mayor Robert Barnett.

"From my vantage point I do think we’ve failed from a process standpoint and it’s not because of the outcome, but’s it because we told you one thing and then we did it different,” Barnett said. “I don’t know what else to say.”

The council, as expected, voted 4-3 to prohibit adult-use cannabis establishments from setting up shop in the village. The vote came after several lengthy discussions on the issue dating back to August.

“My biggest issue [is] we told the public we were going to engage in one process and then we bailed, and that’s a problem,” Barnett continued. “It has nothing to do with cannabis. I apologize. It should have been different than that. The process should have been different than that.”

Commissioners Marge Earl, Nicole Walus, Cavanaugh Gray and Rich Kulovany voted to opt out, while commissioners Greg Hose and Leslie Sadowski-Fugitt joined Barnett in support of considering amendments to the village’s zoning ordinance that would have allowed cannabis dispensaries in limited parts of the community.

Walus and Kulovany initially expressed support for the zoning amendments, which would have been considered by the plan commission before being referred back to the village council.

But the two commissioners later changed their minds, joining Earl and Gray in the call to opt out.

Considering zoning changes would not necessarily lead to dispensaries. Rather, a plan commission hearing would have been an opportunity to gather more input from residents, proponents said.

Opponents called for a wait-and-see approach that would allow the village to observe the challenges faced by communities that opted in before potentially revisiting the issue.

The call for a wait-and-see approach led Hose to propose at the Oct. 8 meeting that a sunset clause be added to the opt-out ordinance effective Jan. 1, 2021. In other words, the ordinance would not be effective after that date forcing the council to take further action.

“The idea was to add something simple that requires us to continue this conversation in approximately a year,” Hose said. “There’s nothing sneaky about it, there’s nothing underhanded about it. It’s about my colleagues have talked about wait and see. They’ve talked about hitting a pause button. So, if they’re being honest about that, let’s hit a pause button.”

Hose’s proposal was rejected as opponents said they did not want to be held to a strict timeline when it comes to reconsidering the issue.

“I think the motion made by Commissioner Hose tonight it’s certainly come as a complete shock to me,” Walus said. “It’s seems as if it’s come as a shock to staff.”

Kulovany agreed.

“There are a number of things on our plate, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable if we were locked in by this particular time where we may only have weeks or a few months to see what other businesses have done to make our decision,” he said.

Earl, who initially proposed that the village opt out of marijuana sales, also opposed the sunset provision.

“I moved to opt out,” Earl said. “That’s what I believe we should do. I have no doubt at some point this will be revisited again, and again possibility, and again until somebody comes up with something they like better.”

Hose said the date for the sunset provision to kick in could be modified.

“We can amend the sunset,” Hose said. “You don’t think 12 months is enough make it 18, make it 24. Pick one. Pick a pause button if you’re really serious about it.”

Barnett said the sunset provision would essentially hold the council’s feet to the fire.

“It’s just a question of whether we’re committed to revisiting this thing and being forced by our own actions to do so or are we committed to just saying so now in the hopes that somebody will bring it up again,” Barnett said. “I think that’s sort of the more fundamental question.”

Several residents as well as individuals from nearby communities attended the meeting to speak on both sides of the issue.

But for some Downers Grove residents, permitting cannabis sales in the village was not at the heart of the issue. Rather, they voiced concerns about the way the council reached its decision.

“The question is not what individual council members feel about the legal use of marijuana,” resident Rick Kay said. “The issue here is that the input from a large number of citizens has been ignored.”

Resident Andrew Pelloso voiced similar concerns.

“What we’re seeing here and what our fear is is simply reckless government,” Pelloso said. “This council is taking their personal positions and personal interests above the residents, above the people who voted for you.”

Christine Martin, who supports opting out, lauded the council for its involvement in efforts to make the Main Street crossing near Downers Grove North High School safer for students.

“Your concern for the kids stemmed because our community suffered and still reels from the tragedy that occurred at that crossing this past school year,” Martin said. “That loss was due to a driver who was on drugs. Every life is valuable. So even if one teenager dies because his or her community thought it was OK to send the message to kids that recreational marijuana is no big deal that is not acceptable.”

Later in the meeting, Sadowski-Fugitt said referencing a student’s death to support a position in the marijuana debate was inappropriate.

Resident Mary Blanchard agreed that council did not properly handle the issue.

“My problem with the whole thing has really been around the process,” Blanchard said. “I’ve seen some tactics along the way that I really haven’t liked.”

“We’ve been scolded for the way we want to have fun,” Blanchard added, referencing a comment Earl made at a previous meeting about using marijuana for fun.

“I am profoundly upset at how the governing process fell apart on this issue,” Sadowski-Fugitt said.

Opponents have argued that the potential sales tax revenue associated with dispensaries is unknown and may be outweighed by the various risks including robberies of dispensaries, the sale of marijuana to minors and the need for police to conduct compliance checks at dispensaries.

“The downside outweighs the upside,” Earl said, reiterating her call to observe how other communities that opt in handle the potential consequences of the decision.

“I can’t judge yet, and I can’t say how long it will be until that happens,” she said.

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