Officials stand by pot opt-out vote that residents say was planned before the public could weigh-in

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DECATUR, Ill. (WCIA) — Since legalization on January 1, more than $20 million worth of recreational marijuana products have been sold across the state, with communities that chose to allow such sales being eligible to net tax dollars off those purchases.

But that’s not the case in Macon County, where county board members recently followed the suit of the Decatur City Council in voting to “opt-out” of allowing such sales altogether earlier this month.

And while some Decatur residents are attempting to collect enough signatures to put a pot sales referendum question on the November 2020 ballot, Decatur Mayor Julie Moore-Wolfe says she stands by the city council’s opt-out vote: members Lisa Gregory, Chuck Kuhle, Pat McDaniel, Rodney Walker, Bill Faber and Moore-Wolfe voted against the measure; council member David Horn was the only vote in favor of recreational sales, although he, too, noted possible negatives.

“One of the first questions I asked law enforcement…leaders…was, ‘Do we need this money to help us offset any problems we get from this?’ Do we need more police officers, what are we going to need?” she said. “And overwhelmingly, the response from law enforcement officials — that’s the sheriff, the police chief — was, ‘You’ll never get enough money off this tax to handle all of the things you’ll need to handle with this.'”

It was conversations like that, Moore-Wolfe said, that influenced council members’ eventual no votes, as well as other “research” that included reading articles on other states that legalized pot.

Residents who favored opting-in to recreational pot sales, however, say they don’t believe city council members ever fully considered both sides of the issue.

At the crux of that belief is an open records request for emails from Moore-Wolfe and city council members in the weeks and months leading up to the Septemeber 30 no-vote: a member of the Decatur Dispensary Project, a group that formed after that vote, filed the request last year.

Those emails indicate the majority of city council members, as well as Moore-Wolfe, favored opting-out before the public hearing on the issue was ever held.

To some extent, Moore-Wolfe said, that’s not abnormal.

“It wouldn’t be unfair to say that we don’t have some predetermined ideas,” she said. “For example, Councilman McDaniel has served on the Drug Free Initiative here forever — he was not going to vote in favor of this no matter what.”

“Many of us were looking at articles, looking to at what was going on in Colorado, what was going on in California to see,” she said. “And anyone can produce a study or whatever that says, ‘No, look, this is really going to be okay, it’s fine.’ And then there’s the other side. But I think we all took this very, very seriously and learned as much as we could, because it’s new territory for us.”

But “heard is one thing — listened to is another, and listened to with an open mind is a third,” said Decatur resident and political activist John Phillips Jr.

Phillips said he’s a co-founder of The Decatur Dispensary Project — the group that formed after the city council’s opt-out vote. He says the number of people who attended the city’s public hearing in favor of recreational sales should have indicated to council members where the public’s support was.

“We had over two hours of public comment which was overwhelmingly in favor of opting-in,” he said. “We’ve seen that time after time after time, where people speak to them and speak to them and speak to them and they’ve already made up their minds.”

Moore-Wolfe, however, said showing up to a city council meeting doesn’t guarantee influence over a city council decision.

“I think the unfortunate thing is there were a lot of people who came to speak (on behalf of opting in) and they felt that because they had a large showing at that council meeting, that, you know, therefore because they’re there (and) we listened to them, that we should do what they said,” she said. “And we don’t base our decisions on who shows up for council meetings. We take everything into consideration.”

For some council members, taking everything into consideration meant thinking about whether there was a conflict between the building of a 17-acre drug treatment center — partially funded by Howard Buffett to the tune of $30 million — and allowing recreational pot sales.

“It’s not like any of us got a phone call from the Buffett Foundation saying, ‘If you vote to do this, the Foundation will no longer be building an amphitheater and helping with community issues’ — that never happened,” Moore-Wolfe said. “So there wasn’t some sort of pressure from the Buffett Foundation or any kind of threat. It was nothing like that.”

But, Moore-Wolfe said, Buffett — who has, over the years, donated tens of millions of dollars to various county, city and law enforcement measures — did share “articles with me and others and I’m not sure who else on the council.”

At least one of those emails centered on studying other municipalities who had “already passed ordinances to prohibit marijuana,” specifically because that information had been requested by Moore-Wolfe and Decatur County Board chairman Keven Greenfield.

“I don’t tell Mr. Buffet how to spend his money and he doesn’t tell me how to vote,” Moore-Wolfe said.  

Only one other governmental body in the Macon County area took a different approach to recreational sales: in December, Decatur Township trustees voted in favor of putting a pot sales referendum on the March 2020 ballot.

The referendum would be non-binding — meaning it wouldn’t overturn the city council or the county’s votes to opt-out — but the intent is to show public support for a measure voted down by two public bodies in the area.

“The biggest motivator for me is to show the city council does not actually consider the unintended consequences of their actions and that they don’t really represent the people,” Phillips said.

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