NEWBURYPORT – City councilor at-large candidate Paul O'Brien said Monday he supports efforts to keep retail marijuana shops out of the city — a view shared by Opt Out Newburyport — and has been making the case on social media.

Opt Out Newburyport hopes residents vote “yes” on Nov. 5 to ban retail marijuana stores in the community. A “no” vote on the ballot question, supported by the group Newburyport CAN, would be in favor of allowing retail marijuana stores in specific business zones.

During a phone interview, O'Brien said his opinion was formed after knocking on doors and realizing more people than not supported a ban on retail pot shops. 

"I want to support the will of the voters," O'Brien said. 

The ballot question, approved by the City Council in December, comes nearly three years after Massachusetts residents voted to legalize adult recreational marijuana. Newburyport residents voted 54 to 46 percent in favor of legalization in 2016.

O'Brien is one of seven people running for five at-large seats on the City Council.

In addition to O'Brien, the candidates on the ballot are incumbent at-large Councilors Barry Connell, Joe Devlin, Afroz Khan and Bruce Vogel, and challengers Robert Germinara and Charles Tontar. Tontar is the current Ward 4 councilor but running for one of the five at-large seats.

O'Brien's opinion did not come as a surprise to Newburyport CAN spokesperson Brianna Sullivan, saying he has been endorsing Opt Out Newburyport through several recent Facebook comments.

Sullivan said she was disappointed that a person running for political office would endorse a group that, in her opinion, spreads misinformation and employs suspect election practices.  

"It troubles me," she said. 

O'Brien said his Facebook comments and his presence on the social media site in general are not a campaign strategy but part of what he called his "online banter" and a desire to let voters know where he stands.  

"My think tank told me to stay off Facebook," O'Brien said. 

Calls to Opt Out Newburyport members Lynn Schow and Amy Roberts for comment were not returned Monday. But in an email, Schow wrote that her group was pleased to see "strong and growing support" for their perspective. 

"There are so many reasons to vote yes on Nov. 5 and we appreciate all residents supporting our efforts," Schow wrote in the email. 

Expanding his thoughts on retail marijuana, O'Brien said he questioned the wisdom of the city's decision to zone retail marijuana in specific areas rather than citywide.

He also admitted having a hard time understanding Newburyport CAN's message. Are they concerned about the city losing the predicted pot revenue or is it about respecting the will of the voters? he asked. 

"Other than the money, nobody is presenting a clear (reason)," O'Brien said. 

Sullivan said Newburyport CAN's mission is to educate the public on what having retail marijuana sales means for the city as well as "debunking misinformation" espoused by Opt Out Newburyport. 

O'Brien went on to criticize Newburyport CAN's presence on Facebook, saying he's seen more negativity from the group when compared to Opt Out Newburyport.

O'Brien, however, did say online discussions between the two groups have gotten "so ugly" that he is concerned about lasting damage to the city once Election Day has passed. 

"It's pitting neighbor against neighbor," he said. 

Staff writer Dave Rogers can be reached at drogers@newburyportnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @drogers41008.

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