July 27 2017 11:45 AM

City attorney says initiative language has problems

A citizen petition to ask voters to approve a medical marijuana licensing ordinance is on hold while Lansing city officials consider the legality of the proposed ordinance.

But Lansing Loves Safe Jobs initiative supporters are crying foul and threatening to sue if the petitions are not approved and sent to the City Council for action.

“We have to sue you guys if it doesn’t go up,” said East Lansing lawyer Jeffrey Hank, who chairs the initiative organization. He said the group would “litigate to preserve the right to vote.”

Hanks called the legal questions “smokescreen technicalities,” meant to keep the proposal off the ballot.

The initiative’s language would allow for more dispensaries than one proposed by the Public Safety Committee of the City Council. The initiative would provide less restrictive zoning.

The proposal is facing serious legal obstacles, City Attorney Jim Smiertka told the Lansing Election Commission on Tuesday.

He said the petition “attempts to legislate zoning matters,” according to a memo from Smiertka to Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope, who is charged with certifying the initiative as proper. Doing so contradicts an existing law that does not leave zoning decisions to such initiatives, Smiertka said.

Secondly, the petition contains confusing language in the proposed ordinance.

Specifically, Smiertka noted that provisions would require renewal of license applications.

“The renewal shall be deemed approved if the city has not issued formal notice of approval within 60 days of the application being filed,” the proposed language reads.

“This means that an application for a license or renewal must always be approved,” Smiertka wrote.

Smiertka and Swope also noted that the City Council is working toward possible adoption of its own ordinance to regulate the medical marijuana industry, with a vote possible as soon as Aug. 24. He said its passage could also complicate the passage of the citizen ordinance.

“The proposed ordinance would replace the current ordinance on the books, chapter 1300,” Smiertka said. “But if Council adopts the pending ordinance before them, they would replace those chapters completely. That calls into question the validity of this proposal if that happens.”

But Hank countered that the first two legal issues were for “post election” decisionmaking.

Supporters submitted over 6,000 signatures in support of the initiative last week. City Clerk Chris Swope said his office is still verifying that those signatures are valid. To meet the threshold to get on the ballot, supporters would have to have collected just over 4,000 signatures of registered voters from Lansing.

Swope has 15 days from the day the petitions were submitted, which was July 18, to approve the form of the ballot language as well as the signatures. He then has to refer it to the City Council which can either approve it and put it on the books or place it on the ballot for the voters to consider. The Council would have 30 days from the day it receives it to act.

To make it on the November general election ballot, all of the necessary signatures have to be approved by Swope and the legal issues raised by Smiertka have to be addressed. That has to happen before Council’s Aug. 14 meeting in order to be approved that day to meet state law requiring its placement on the ballot by Aug. 15.

Swope said it’s “unlikely” the initiative will be approved in that tight time frame. He did say it was possible the proposal could land on a special election ballot in May of 2018. A special election could cost taxpayers an estimated $60,000.