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Head-scratching on Fresno’s marijuana vote stretches from City Hall to a Montana gas station

Fresno City Hall

Head-scratching on Fresno’s marijuana vote stretches from City Hall to a Montana gas station

Paul Caprioglio holed up in a Montana gas station for one part of Thursday’s City Council meeting, just not the most controversial part.

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It’s not the Twitter War that counts. What counts is the Big Sky Country Mystery.

I’m talking about the Fresno City Council’s unusual marijuana vote on Thursday.

The local media have done a superb job of reporting on the vote and its Social Media aftermath.

In a nutshell, an amendment to the municipal code dealing with the cultivation of marijuana failed on a 3-3 vote. Garry Bredefeld, Steve Brandau and Luis Chavez voted yes. Clint Olivier, Oliver Baines and Esmeralda Soria voted no.

Officials in the administration of Mayor Lee Brand say they’ll bring the bill back to council on Aug. 3.

Council President Olivier and Council Member Bredefeld got into a heated exchange on Twitter about the vote’s significance. (My thanks to GVWire’s David Taub and The Bee’s Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado for their fine reporting on the digital slugfest.)

Olivier said his side won a key battle. Bredefeld said the vote was a minor setback, and his side will successfully counterattack. (That’s my loose interpretation.)

The two council members’ bitterness goes back to the vote in late June that banned recreational marijuana dispensaries. The vote was the first of two needed to make the ban a reality. The second vote is still to come.

The vote was 4-3. Council Member Paul Caprioglio joined Bredefeld, Brandau and Chavez in the majority.

The council seems to be voting on a lot of marijuana issues these days. Maybe that’s why the Olivier-Bredefeld Twitter fight contained a bit of confusion to outside observers like me.

Caprioglio was not at Thursday’s council meeting. He was in Montana (Big Sky Country, as it’s called) on vacation.

But why didn’t Caprioglio cast his vote on the marijuana cultivation bill anyway, even though he was a thousand miles from the Council Chamber? After all, Caprioglio had already jumped through the legal hoops to make sure he could participate via telephone in the council’s review of the Annual Action Plan on Thursday.

The council agenda was publicly posted on Friday, July 14. The agenda made no mention of Caprioglio’s absence from the Thursday (July 20) meeting. It did note that the marijuana cultivation bill would be part of the consent calendar and that the hearing on the Annual Action Plan was scheduled for 10:10 a.m.

I dropped by the City Clerk’s Office on Wednesday (July 19). On the public counter was a special meeting notice. The special council meeting would be held at 10:10 a.m. Thursday and would deal with the Annual Action Plan.

You ask: “Why is the special meeting notice repeating what’s already on the council agenda?”

The special meeting notice also had this sentence: “Councilmember Caprioglio may be present via conference call from Conoco Gas Station: 90 Lone Mountain Trail, Big Sky, MT 59716.”

It turns out that Caprioglio sometime between Friday’s posting of the agenda and my trip on Wednesday to the City Clerk’s Office decided he wanted to participate in the debate on the Annual Action Plan. He would have to do this by long distance telephone call. The rules required him (and City Hall) to formally inform the public of this temporary wrinkle in democracy in action.

For Brown Act (the state Open Meeting Law) reasons, the 10:10 a.m. Annual Action Plan hearing had to be turned into a special council meeting within the regular meeting. This formality would not hinder the pace of the council meeting.

Officials in the City Clerk’s Office told me that a council member wishing to participate in a council meeting via telephone must choose prior to the meeting which items he wants to vote on. The council member can’t say in the pre-meeting notice, “I’ll vote in Montana on only the Annual Action Plan,” then decide when the meeting rolls around to also vote on the consent calendar. That’s not fair to the public.

(Officials in the City Clerk’s Office also said the special meeting notice had to be posted in Big Sky’s Conoco Gas Station while Caprioglio was on the phone to the Council Chamber. And if someone passing through the gas station during the public comment period on Fresno’s Annual Action Plan wanted to chime in via telephone, she had every right to her three minutes.)

Keep in mind that there’s nothing to prevent a council member from saying he wants to participate in the entire agenda via phone. But he must give the public fair notice.

Once I got a handle on this process, and saw the media reports on the Olivier-Bredefeld tweets, I realized one of the missing pieces was the thinking behind Caprioglio’s decision-making regarding how much time he wanted to spend in a Montana gas station on the phone to Fresno while on vacation.

I sent Paul a text message asking why he hadn’t made a formal request to the City Clerk’s Office to also take part in the consent calendar with its marijuana bill. He didn’t get back to me.

Now, I can understand why Caprioglio would want to interrupt his vacation to weigh in on the Annual Action Plan. The plan deals with the allocation of million of dollars from federal grants. And I can understand why he wouldn’t want to add an hour or two to this interruption by dealing with a boring consent calendar.

But what Caprioglio’s decision means is that everyone at City Hall knew well before Thursday’s council meeting that only six council members would be voting on the marijuana cultivation bill.

Everyone knew that Caprioglio’s vote was the deciding vote in June on the recreational marijuana dispensary bill.

Everyone knew that emotions inside the Council Chamber connected to anything regarding marijuana regulation are intense.

Everyone knew that the switch of one vote could mean the death of the recreational marijuana dispensary ban bill when it comes back for the adoption vote.

Everyone knew the political gamesmanship to 1.) flip that decisive council member, or 2.) protect that decisive council member is intense.

So, once it became clear that Caprioglio wouldn’t be voting on the consent calendar, why didn’t someone from the Bredefeld-Brandau-Chavez team or the Brand Administration say at the beginning of Thursday’s meeting: “Council President Olivier, I ask that we continue item 1-T (the marijuana cultivation bill) until the next meeting.”

If the person making the request got some pushback, she could add: “I need to do more public outreach.” The “public outreach” ploy never fails to carry the day.

But no member of the Bredefeld-Brandau-Chavez team or the Brand Administration made that request, even though all of them are veterans of the political arena and masters of the political arts (in other words, they know how to count noses).

When the vote was called for Thursday’s consent calendar and item 1-T was still there, Olivier, Baines and Soria must have said to themselves: “It’s great to be alive.”

In fact, that was the essence of Olivier’s message on Twitter.

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George Hostetter

George Hostetter is a contributor to CVObserver and advisor to The Collegian, the student newspaper of Fresno State.

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