Controversy surrounding recent medical marijuana zoning battles continued to broil Friday inside Phoenix City Hall and across the street at Maricopa County Superior Court.
On Thursday, The Arizona Republic published stories detailing allegations by multiple zoning attorneysabout the authenticity of multiple medical marijuana zoning appeals.
The city is now investigating those allegations.
Councilman sues the city
Earlier this week, Councilman Sal DiCiccio sued Phoenix over the City Council’s replacement of four members of the volunteer Board of Adjustment that hears those zoning appeals.
DiCiccio wanted the council to consider the issue later, but the City Attorney’s Office told DiCiccio that appointments cannot be reconsidered.
On Friday morning, DiCiccio appeared in court with his attorney, Alexander Kolodin, to try to halt the new board members’ appointments from taking effect.
DiCiccio and Kolodin are both connected to individuals who were scrutinized by attorneys in the medical marijuana cases. DiCiccio said he filed the lawsuit because he believes the city was “defaming these three board members” by replacing them, because people may think they were connected with the recent allegations.
None of the removed board members attended the hearing.
DiCiccio also said all City Council action is not supposed to take effect until 30 days after it is passed, per the city’s charter, and he wanted to hold the city accountable for violating the law.
Two of the new members were sworn in immediately after the council voted to appoint them. Their first meeting was the next day.
The judge did not halt the transition of board members and instead scheduled oral arguments for August.
City investigating marijuana allegations
During the court hearing, attorneys for the city indicated that the city is investigating to see whether any of the replaced board members were connected to the allegations waged by attorneys representing medical marijuana dispensaries.
The allegations involve duplicated paperwork, false addresses and phone numbers, signature discrepancies and questionable board votes.
City officials did not say what that investigation may entail.
City spokeswoman Julie Watters said in a statement, “as advisors to the Board of Adjustment, the City Attorney’s Office is reviewing the allegations filed with the board by Withey Morris.”
Another marijuana appeal
About half an hour after the court hearing ended, the Phoenix Board of Adjustment convened across the street — with new members.
The first item on the agenda: The medical marijuana appeal that DiCiccio contends was the reason Stanton decided to replace some of the board members.
After a half hour, closed-door executive session, the board decided to hear arguments on the authenticity of the appeal.
Appeals must be brought forward by an “aggrieved” individual, according to state law.
Adam Baugh, the Withey Morris attorney for the dispensary seeking to open in west Phoenix, rehashed many of the allegations he made the memo he filed with the city last week, including similarities between the individuals involved in this appeal and other recent appeals.
He challenged whether Kelly Gutierrez, supposedly a nearby resident who would be impacted by the dispensary, lived at the address she’d provided or even filled out the paperwork she’d supposedly signed.
The dispensary offered testimony from a handwriting expert who said Gutierrez’s signature on the appeal didn’t match that on her driver’s license, as well as testimony from a private investigator who said he wasn’t unable to locate Gutierrez at the address she’d provided.
Gutierrez did not attend the hearing. A woman named Kristine Shaoul, who also has ties to other individuals questioned in Baugh’s memo, told the board that she went to the Fry’s pharmacy where Gutierrez works, watched Gutierrez sign the appeal paperwork and then took it.
When The Republic spoke with Gutierrez in a phone interview in April, Gutierrez said she filled out the appeal paperwork with the assistance of her boyfriend’s sister, Alexia Nunez, and then gave it to Nunez to submit to the city.
Nunez is also involved in several other medical marijuana zoning appeal cases. Kolodin is her attorney.
Attorney Timothy La Sota, who is representing Gutierrez, continued to contend during the hearing that Gutierrez lives at the address she provided.
Before Friday’s hearing, The Republic went to the apartment and the residents in the unit said Gutierrez did not live there.
La Sota denied all of the allegations waged by Baugh and said Gutierrez did not want to be at the hearing because she felt she was the victim of a smear campaign. He said residents exercising their right to appeal should not have to worry about private investigators and handwriting experts.
One of the new Board of Adjustment members, Jose de Jesus Rivera, echoed some of La Sota’s concerns and said dismissing the case because of these allegations could set a “very bad precedent.”
Board Chairman Brian Jeffries said the allegations put the board in a difficult position because it does not have the power to investigate the claims.
The board voted 4-1 to not dismiss the case based on the authenticity of the appeal, and then proceeded to hear arguments about the underlying merits of the zoning case.
Dispensary versus library
La Sota’s main argument was that the proposed dispensary is about 200 feet from Desert Sage Library. Phoenix’s medical marijuana ordinance requires special approval if a facility wishes to locate within 1,320 feet of a “public community center.”
La Sota said a library should qualify based on the city’s definition of a “public community center.”
Phoenix Planning Director Alan Stephenson told that board that the city does not consider libraries community centers. The city went through a long public process to adopt its current medical-marijuana spacing requirements, and libraries were never mentioned, he said.
The board voted unanimously to uphold the hearing officer’s recommendation, clearing the way for the dispensary to open. Several board members suggested the City Council clarify the zoning ordinance as it relates to libraries.
La Sota said he intends to appeal the decision to Maricopa County Superior Court.