The Daily Globe - Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

Bessemer City Council struggles with Michigan marijuana laws


December 28, 2017

Ian Minielly/Daily Globe

THE BESSEMER City Council voted 4-0 on Dec. 7 to repeal the ordinances authorizing industrial-scale marijuana production and processing in Bessemer, which the prior council passed Sept. 18 by a vote of 3-2. From left to right are Linda Nelson, Adam Zak, Allen Archie, and Rob Coleman.


Editor's note: The Daily Globe is counting down the Gogebic Range's top five stories of 2017 each day this week. The editorial department staff sat down and came up with the annual list, naming Bessemer's election and marijuana passage as the third-place story of the year.

Bessemer - For the majority of 2017, the Bessemer City Council and planning commission debated, worked, argued and eventually passed new ordinances allowing medical marijuana facilities within the industrial park by a 3-2 vote.

Rob Coleman and Linda Nelson voted against authorization while Kathy Whitburn, Al Gaiss and John Frello voted yes.

Passage of the ordinance by the council did not end the struggle within the city. Bessemer remains a divided town on the issue of marijuana, as the newly elected council members repealed the measure in just over their first month in office, after mostly running on an anti-marijuana campaign.

Late last winter, the city sent out a public survey to residents. The city received 269 survey responses, with an almost even ratio between male and female returns. The Baby Boomer generation, ages 52-71, had the highest percentage of responses, making up over 48 percent of returned surveys.

Survey results showed 96 percent of residents felt encouraging new business development and growth were important to the city. Public opinion on medical marijuana filling that gap was not as strong, but was favorable. Returned surveys had 49 percent of residents supporting large-scale grows in the industrial area, with 42 percent rejecting the idea outright. Of those supporting the marijuana industry, half wanted the city to provide an open marijuana market, while the other half wanted the city to place limits on the number of grows authorized.

Very few city council or planning commission meetings happened in 2017 where one of the topics was not medical marijuana. It is one of the primary sources of unrest in the city.

Mike Korpela, city attorney during the saga, said, "Since the city of Bessemer is struggling financially, the last city council passed an ordinance allowing for commercial facilities in the industrial park... the potential for a large growth in tax base and a 3 percent excise tax from sales would generate revenues of tens of thousands of dollars for the city, county, sheriff and the state's public education fund."

Rob Coleman, one of two incumbents on the council, explained his position on commercial marijuana production, "There are too many unanswered questions. The numbers that the growers are giving us are purely speculative and are not fact based." In addition, Coleman said, "The amount of usable land in our industrial park is extremely limited and this is the only area that would be available to growers. I feel the current growers have left a bad taste in our residents' mouths."

For others opposed to the new regulation, there was fear of the smell of pot permeating the downtown, riff-raff moving to Bessemer to grow and consume dope, and the town being not as wonderful as it used to be in its glory days, ever since marijuana came to town in 2008.

Opponents of medical marijuana regularly claimed the prior city manager, in conjunction with Korpela, had suckered the innocent residents of Bessemer into authorizing care-giver facilities within the city, specifically calling out the Big Dollar on Sophie Street as the biggest offender of local sensibilities in nearly every council meeting over the last year.

Former Mayor Kathy Whitburn and John Frello both said medical marijuana is a viable and legal medical treatment option for people. Whitburn said, "My professional opinion is that this is legal business in the state of Michigan and a new viable revenue stream for the city... It provides the opportunity to capitalize on that revenue stream and regulate and monitor it with full law enforcement."

Whitburn said, "Business professionals who succeed strike when the iron is hot and this industry is hotter than the dot coms of the '90s."

The marijuana can was kicked back and forth between the planning commission and the council for many months before the vote was brought forward.

The council voted on Oct. 18 to accept ordinances 356 and 357 by a 3-2 count.

Frello said that evening he was surprised by the lack of comments that evening and closed with this hope, "We can put this behind us after the vote."

Right in the middle of the contentious issue, the election for the new council became its own circus as Jim Trudgeon, city clerk, accidentally provided the incorrect date over the summer regarding when people needed to be registered for the November ballot. The mistake resulted in the ballots being empty, forcing a write-in election and even greater consternation and uneasiness within Bessemer. Eventually, 10 people threw their hats in the ring.

The politics continued as Linda Nelson attempted to whittle the candidate pool down in the Oct. 2 city council meeting by saying potential council members must be residents of Bessemer for at least two years before running for office. A brouhaha resulted from that effort, as many of the prospective candidates were in the audience that evening and heard their candidacies threatened by a residency requirement.

Whitburn acknowledged the threat to the candidates by reminding the audience her time as mayor would be invalidated and Frello's first term would also be invalidated as both had returned to Bessemer and run for office before gaining two years of residency. The election was thrown into temporary upheaval only one month before the voting. Korpela put out the fire by stating the two-year requirement was invalid and cannot disqualify a candidate, restoring order and calming nerves.

Korpela provided, "A citizen's right to seek elected office is a fundamental right under state and federal law. Any restriction on requirements to seek office must serve a compelling state interest and be the least burdensome method to achieve those results. By law, a candidate must be a resident and registered elector of the district from which he or she is to be elected, over 18 in Michigan, and live within the jurisdiction for more than 30 days and eligible to vote in that district."

The election controversy continued as Terry Kryshak was on the outside looking in with the initial results, before an error in accounting was discovered on the morning of Nov. 8 and Kryshak jumped to third place, forcing Nelson to fifth, and dropping Louis Miskovich off the council. Miskovich paid the recount fee, but it was the middle of hunting season, so the recount had to wait two weeks. Gogebic County Clerk Gerry Pelissero confirmed the results of the election on Nov. 27: Miskovich was out and Kryshak was in.

The new council immediately hired Ray O'Dea as city attorney, ushering in further controversy as city manager Charly Loper and Kryshak argued Loper was responsible for accepting bids and providing names to the council for ultimate selection. The council and O'Dea, minus Kryshak, disagreed, arguing Loper only identifies when there is a need, the council is solely responsible for hiring.

A public hearing was held in the auditorium of city hall on Dec. 7. After impassioned speeches by many in favor and those against marijuana, the council voted 4-0 to repeal ordinances 356 and 357. The Daily Globe ran an incomplete paid advertisement from the city of Bessemer on Dec. 8, which was submitted before the public hearing and lacked the detailed information because of that. However, since the repeal ordinance did not go into effect until after seven days from being published, the city council wanted to have the ordinance published in Dec. 8 so ordinance 358 would go into effect Dec. 15, the same day the state authorized large grow licenses.

Richard Duncanson initially submitted his paperwork for licensing in November. The city returned the paperwork and asked Duncanson to apply on the Dec. 15, the first day the new businesses would be legal. Trudgeon refused to sign Duncanson's application under advisement of the city attorney that the ordinances were repealed.

Duncanson argued the now old ordinances were law because Bessemer resubmitted the paid ad, meaning the new law, repealing the established ordinances. did not go into effect until Dec. 21, seven days after being published.

As Bessemer prepares for the new year the city remains divided. The city council is opposed to marijuana facilities being opened in the industrial park and Duncanson has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to discover if there were violations of the Open Meetings Act with the potential for a lawsuit, according to Duncanson.


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