, Newburyport, MA

November 19, 2013

Councilors erred by rushing 'pot farm' vote

Newburyport Daily News

---- — Readers of this column are no strangers to The Daily News’ viewpoint on how local government should be conducted — it should be open and “transparent,” trusting that citizens should be always included in the information loop, and their opinions considered and respected when the final decision is made.

There are times when secrecy is required — usually in cases of lawsuits, contract negotiations, and the like. These exemptions are clearly stated by state law, and they are not the norm of how government should work.

That brings us to the odd situation at the Amesbury City Council meeting last week, when Council President Anne Ferguson attempted to have her fellow councilors suspend the normal rules in order to give immediate approval to a resolution in favor of a medical marijuana growing facility in town. The majority of councilors shot the idea down, and kudos to them — this was clearly an unvetted and potentially controversial decision that required the public’s input. It was sprung on the council, and citizens, with no warning and absolutely no public vetting — usually the recipe for bad decision-making.

The resolution in itself wouldn’t give the plan automatic approval, in fact it wasn’t even mandatory. Under the state’s new rules for medical marijuana production and distribution, a letter from the city citing no opposition to the plan was something that would be included in the points system that helps determine if the license is granted.

Though Ferguson said her reason for pushing the measure through was to meet a state Nov. 21 deadline for filing documents, the public’s best interest was clearly pushed to the side. Indeed Ferguson, City Councilor Bob Lavoie, and Mayor Thatcher Kezer were well aware of the plan to potentially build a “pot farm” in Amesbury, but they never made the matter public. It was kept secret from the public until last Tuesday night. It’s clear that this was purposefully withheld from the public during the recent election campaign season.

There’s some irony to this. On the same night that the council was debating the resolution, hundreds of Amesbury’s business leaders were gathered at the Amesbury Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting, where the business community’s accomplishments were highlighted and next year’s theme was announced — Grow with Amesbury. The chamber gave out flower bulbs to reinforce its theme, but we are sure that the chamber and its members weren’t thinking “pot farm” when the new theme was introduced.

All around the area, communities are publicly trying to put in moratoriums and zoning changes to manage marijuana dispensaries and production. Amesbury is way behind the curve on this, it needs to catch up.

It’s incumbent on elected officials to follow the usual protocol when considering matters of public interest. In this case, a “pot farm” may have negative implications for the town. The potential developers don’t want the location made public via The Daily News, noting security risks. We don’t think that’s the kind of deal that the taxpayers of Amesbury would consider to be fair and reasonable. People have a right to know when something controversial is planned for their town, and where it will be.

Amesbury is in the midst of redefining itself and remarketing itself. It has so many strengths to offer. Open government should be one of them, but this latest incident shows the city isn’t there yet.