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Springfield city councilors question cannabis business selection process

Springfield City Hall
Paul Tuthill
/
WAMC
City Councilors have made an extensive request for public records as they look into the administration's process for selecting marijuana businesses to move to the permitting process.

A proposed cultivation facility at the center of City Hall controversy

A permit request to build a $20 million marijuana cultivation facility in East Springfield is back on the agenda for Monday's City Council meeting. The introduction of the cannabis industry in the state’s third-largest city has stalled.

The hearing on the special permit has dragged on for months as City Councilors have questioned the process the administration of Mayor Domenic Sarno used to select the cannabis company Page Cultivate LLC over other bidders.

Other proposed marijuana businesses have been caught up in the controversy.

City Councilor Justin Hurst has been the most vocal and persistent in questioning the administration’s handling of the fledgling marijuana industry’s attempts to enter Springfield. He’s called for investigations by both the state Attorney General and the Cannabis Control Commission.

“I do believe the system is corrupt and I believe it’s rigged,” Hurst said.

Springfield City Solicitor Ed Pikula has labeled Hurst’s accusations “preposterous.”

Last year, the city auditor reviewed the process followed by the administration to pick marijuana companies to negotiate host community agreements and determined it was “objective and fair.” However the audit did find tabulation errors were made in adding up points assigned to marijuana business proposals and some documents could not be located.

The controversy over Page Cultivate stems from the company changing its bid proposal after it had been submitted to the administration’s evaluation committee when it was discovered the proposed building would have violated a buffer zone requirement in the city’s marijuana zoning ordinance.

City Councilor Kateri Walsh said it appears the company got a break not afforded to others.

“It’s clear to me that some special preferences was given, and I don’t like that,” Walsh said. “I believe everyone should be treated fairly.”

The City Council has made an extensive public records request of the city administration.

City Councilor Tim Allen said the Council needs to review all the documentation pertaining to the administration’s decision-making on marijuana businesses.

“We think it is best to get it right rather than get it -- well I guess it is not fast at this point,” Allen said “We have not been really fast in this process, but we certainly want to get it right.”

The controversy involving Page Cultivate has delayed permit hearings for several proposed recreational marijuana stores including one proposed at a former Macy’s in the Eastfield Mall. It’s a project the mall owners say is part of their plans for revitalizing the once-vibrant shopping center.

City Councilor Jesse Lederman acknowledged the holdup in the permit approval process is costing the city the economic benefits of the new marijuana industry.

“I don’t want to see us leaving revenue or jobs on the table, however there is nothing more important in this process than the integrity of this body.” Lederman said. “I want to make sure we resolve any and all questions and assertions prior to continuing the process forward,”

There are 387 licensed marijuana retailers in Massachusetts, according to the Cannabis Control Commission. Only two are located in Springfield.

Recreational cannabis, which was legalized by voters in 2016, is now a $1.4 billion-per-year industry in Massachusetts.

Tax revenue from marijuana sales surpassed what the state took in from alcohol last year.