Court Rules in Clerk’s Favor in Three Rivers Marijuana Petition Suit

Circuit Court Judge Paul Stutesman issued a ruling Tuesday in a suit against the City of Three Rivers over a petition submitted this summer to place a marijuana ordinance on the November ballot. Stutesman ruled the petition, submitted by Jobs for Michigan Communities (JMC), does not conform to a state statute that dictates proper size and language. 

The Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act (MRTMA) requires a petition for local marijuana ordinances to be exactly 8.5 by 14 inches in size, and in its language, it must go no further than to provide for the number of marijuana businesses permitted in a city. JMC’s petition included fold-out sections and its language specified detailed processes for determining who could obtain a license for a marijuana business. City Clerk Melissa Bliss rejected the petition on those grounds on behalf of the city’s Election Commission.

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.

JMC filed its suit on August 17, seeking a Writ of Mandamus, which is a legal ruling that would compel Bliss to canvass the petition’s signatures, certify the petition, and include it on the ballot in November’s general election. The suit also sought declaratory judgment by the court stating the petitions are fully compliant with the MRTMA. A hearing began before Judge Stutesman last Tuesday, but Stutesman rescheduled arguments for this Tuesday so he could have time to review arguments and evidence submitted by attorneys for the plaintiffs and the defense.

Although Stutesman’s ruling leaves open the possibility of an appeal, JMC representative Andrew George did not yet know whether the organization would pursue further action when contacted by Watershed Voice. Following Tuesday’s hearing Mayor Tom Lowry told Watershed Voice he hopes the Three Rivers City Commission will continue to honor its vote last week to draft its own ordinance for the next available ballot in 2021 in order to “let the people decide.”

JMC attorney Douglas Mains said the MRTMA is “not as clear as the defense says” on the issue of language. Mains said while the law says a City Commission can limit the number of marijuana businesses by ordinance, it provides for a different interpretation for petitioners. The words “provide for the number of businesses,” he said, are much broader than setting a static number. 

Mains further said substantive challenges to the petition’s content by Bliss were premature, arguing that those challenges should properly come after the election. Mains presented cases from Royal Oak and Detroit to show how a petition can be upheld in cases where a clerk’s challenges were premature. 

Emily Palacios, attorney for City Clerk Melissa Bliss, said the Royal Oak decision is unpublished and presented without detailed legal arguments, and therefore not binding as a legal precedent. She further argued the language issue was moot because deadlines for certification of ballot language have already passed. She provided a Livingston County case as a better precedent example for how a clerk’s action can bind.

Palacios said the Detroit case “did not establish an iron-clad rule” that barred challenges to pre-election proposal language, but rather allows for a clerk to challenge a petition when there is a clear conflict between the petition’s proposed ballot language and the state law that authorizes the petition, in this case MRTMA.

On the sizing question, Mains said the Michigan Secretary of State guidelines on petitions for state ballot initiatives allow for larger dimensions as long as they fold down to the regulation size. The petition as submitted by JMC, demonstrated by a witness called by Mains, folded down from a six-panel sheet. 

Palacios said the guidelines apply only to state ballot initiatives. Mains said the guidelines permit for larger fold out sheets so signatories can properly review the full language of what they are signing, but Palacios said hiding ballot language in folded sheets made it less likely that the signatories would actually read the content.

In his ruling Tuesday, Stutesman said it would be helpful if several related cases in other municipalities were ruled upon by appeals courts, since it would provide clearer precedent for a decision. However, he sided with Palacios and disagreed with Mains on both issues. He said the local ordinance initiative was separate from the statewide initiative process, and that the petition language could only specify the number of permissible marijuana establishments. He further said that the MRTMA does not allow for folding. 

Stutesman also said he would not consider the third complaint in JMC’s lawsuit seeking a Writ of Mandamus requiring Bliss to recount and certify the petition’s signatures. He said Bliss’ rejection of JMC’s petition was not based on the number of signatures, and the signatures were therefore not an issue.

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.