Three Rivers Marijuana Petition Goes Before Judge

Following its rejection by the City of Three Rivers last month, advocates for a petition supporting a ballot measure on marijuana businesses filed a lawsuit to have the petition upheld. This morning, 45th Circuit Court Judge Paul Stutesman spoke to attorneys for the plaintiff and the defense in the case of Jobs for Michigan Communities versus Melissa Bliss, but scheduled arguments and testimony for next week because the volume of materials submitted in the case exceeded available time to review it.

The suit was filed on August 17 after Bliss, who is the Three Rivers City Clerk and a member of the city’s Board of Election Commissioners, sent the plaintiffs a letter notifying them that their petition was rejected. The petition is one of two that the plaintiffs submitted calling for November ballot measures that would establish changes to the City Code and City Charter permitting marijuana retail businesses within the City of Three Rivers.

Although the State of Michigan legalized sale, distribution, and possession of marijuana through a 2018 ballot measure, it provided for cities to opt not to permit such businesses. The Three Rivers City Commission has previously voted not to permit marijuana establishments, but if the petitions are successful, they will place the question directly before voters.

The plaintiffs turned in their petitions on Tuesday, July 28, the last day they could legally be submitted under state law. The following Tuesday, August 4, the City Commission authorized Bliss and City Attorney J. Patrick O’Malley to hire the firm of Miller Canfield, which has experience with similar issues, to review the petitions and determine whether they met state laws that would permit them to be upheld. Following Miller Canfield’s review, Bliss sent the plaintiffs their rejection notification letter on August 7.

The rejection stated that the petition exceeds the size mandated by Michigan law, is not limited to the subject matter permitted under the Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act (MRTMA), and “proposes, in part, administrative determinations (as opposed to legislative actions) that are not the proper subject of an initiative petition and are contrary to State law.” In comments to the Three Rivers City Commission on August 18, Andrew George, a representative for the plaintiffs, provided visual comparison of the petition in question to a previous one that was allowed to stand in placing the 2018 state initiative on the ballot.

The August 17 suit seeks a Writ of Mandamus, which is a legal ruling that would compel Bliss to canvass the signatures submitted to her office in the plaintiff’s petition. If a sufficient number of signatures were submitted, Bliss would be required to certify the petition and include it on the ballot in November’s general election. The suit also seeks declaratory judgment by the court stating that the petitions are fully compliant with the MRTMA.

Stutesman said on August 25, he issued an Order to Show Cause by writ, asked Bliss to submit an answer by today, and set today’s hearing date. This morning, plaintiff’s attorney Douglas Mains said he would like the hearing to proceed today as planned. However, Stutesman said the plaintiff’s complaint materials contained more than two inches worth of printed documents. He received the defendant’s response materials less than a half hour before the hearing began. Those materials contained another half-inch of documents.

Consequently, Stutesman said he did not have a chance to review them in depth amid a backlog of criminal cases caused, in part, by the pandemic shutdown. He said, “this is a Writ of Mandamus. I think I’ve had one other of these in fifteen years. I don’t have the benefit of a research attorney or a law clerk.”

Stutesman said he previously set the date for today’s expedited hearing due to election-related deadlines, including a September 4 date at which ballot printing often begins. However, he said this morning the case could not get proper review without more time. Because of that, he said he would not be able to issue a decision today. Additional time would permit proper review of the materials, as well as related laws and statutes, and would also allow time for testimony if the attorneys were to request it.

Emily Palacios, attorney for the defense, requested an adjournment of this morning’s hearing because she said the City Commission plans to meet in closed session at its regular meeting this evening to address the issue. She said delaying “would give the city an opportunity to make a considered decision” that could make the lawsuit “moot.” Further, Palacios said, the deadline for certifying ballot language passed on August 11.

As a result, Palacios said the measure could not be placed on the ballot with a Writ of Mandamus alone. She further argued that the timeline over which the issue has played out and the time the court would need to review materials and arguments property means “I don’t think this gets on the November ballot under any circumstance because of the timing of where we are at.” Palacios said that Bliss would need additional preparation time to provide additional testimony.

Because he must ensure he is properly familiar with Writ of Mandamus cases, Stutesman said he would have to determine whether a ruling on the suit would have to take place under a bench trial, a motion, an order to show cause hearing, or other process. He recognized the concerns of election timing but said the fact that the petitions were submitted on the last possible day “made it difficult to give the court the time it needs.”

Stutesman scheduled time for arguments and potential testimony on Tuesday, September 8. Mains and Palacios each estimated their initial arguments would take 20 to 30 minutes, plus time for any questions they may have to respond to. Stutesman said the entire afternoon that day will be open if necessary. “We’ll start at 1:00 p.m. and see where that takes us,” he said.

Dave Vago is a writer and columnist for Watershed Voice. A Philadelphia native with roots in Three Rivers, Vago is a planning consultant to history and community development organizations and is the former Executive Director of the Three Rivers DDA/Main Street program.