Pot at the heart of Parachute election | PostIndependent.com

Pot at the heart of Parachute election

Ryan Hoffman

Regardless of which side they align on, the people lobbying to stay on or be elected to the Parachute Board of Trustees agree there is a lot at stake in this election.

Voting residents will have a say on every position on the seven-member board, with three incumbents and two challengers running for four seats and a recall question for the other two trustees and the mayor.

Should voters approve the recall, they will have one alternative choice for mayor and one alternative choice for the two trustee seats up for recall — bringing the total number of names on the ballot to 10.

At the heart of the political turmoil is marijuana — a divisive issue that has polarized certain segments of the population since the board repealed its ban on the industry last June with a 4-2 vote.

The decision and the process running up to it are responsible for the recall of Mayor Roy McClung and Trustees Tim Olk and Tom Rugaard, as well as the candidacy of Pam Jarrett, who has remained one of the town’s most ardent opponents after the board voted on the matter.

While much of the discussion since then has centered on marijuana its pros and cons, Jarrett said the issue has always been about what she called residents inability to have more input on the decision.

She concedes she was unaware of the meeting where trustees discussed and ultimately repealed the town’s previous ban.

“All of that is true – but I do wish they would have helped us to have a little more say in it,” Jarrett said recently.

She is running for one of the four board seats in the regular election along with candidate Fred Andersen and incumbents Juanita Williams, who serves as mayor pro-tem, and trustees John Loschke and Travis Sproles.

Andersen, who has lived in Parachute for the past five years and worked in the oil and gas industry, said he has seen the ups and downs of the energy industry. He supports the decision to repeal the ban.

“I’m all for that,” he said. “It was a good move, it was a smart move and I think they did it totally looking at the town’s best interests. … I thought it was a good idea.”

Board members who voted in favor of opening the door to the marijuana business — Williams, Loschke and the two trustees being recalled, Tim Olk and Tom Rugaard — all recently reaffirmed their position on the issue. And although he did not vote on the original decision McClung also stated his support for the board’s decision.

Sproles filled a vacant seat after the marijuana vote, and although he has not taken as ardent a stance on marijuana as others have, he has voted against license requests since joining the board. He did not respond in time to comments for this story.

Lonnie Stanley, who said in a candidate profile that “unlimited marijuana dispensaries, grows, etc, is not right for this town or its citizens’ sentiment,” is the sole candidate should voters elected to recall Olk or Rugaard. He also did not respond to a request seeking comment on this story.

Judith Hayward, a former town councilor, is challenging McClung, should voters elect to recall him.

Board members point to the town’s financial position, which has historically been tied to the natural resource extraction industry. The recent slowdown in the oil and gas industry is hitting the town harder than neighboring cities and towns in Garfield County. While those municipalities, including Rifle and Silt, saw increases in annual sales tax collection in 2015, Parachute saw a decrease from $1.053 million in 2014 to $831,641 in 2015.

“I felt like as a board we needed to make a decision, and it wasn’t like we could wait around to make those decisions,” Rugaard said recently, adding that marijuana is simply a stepping stone to get to broader economic diversification. Others, including Olk, who said the board had to do something fast to combat the rapid decline in oil and gas, shared Rugaard’s sentiments, and echoed several other points that have been made during public discussions since last summer.

“We didn’t bring marijuana to Parachute,” Williams said, “it was already here.”

Question of pace

However, some feel the town has moved too fast since last June.

Trustees have approved five retail store licenses, one retail cultivation license and one retail manufacturing license. Sales tax revenue from December along with all the money generated from licensing fees, building fees and other permitting have generated a total of $94,465. Town Manager Stuart McArthur said he expects another $30,000 in licensing fees in the future.

“I’m pleased with the results,” Loschke said. “And I don’t know the exact numbers but I think it’s going in the direction the board anticipated it would go in.”

An analysis by the Post Independent examined the total number of recreational marijuana licenses approved by the state in 17 Western Slope municipalities that allow recreational marijuana. The results show that Parachute is tied with Rifle, which does not have recreational stores but does have recreational grows, for seventh in terms of the most state-approved recreational licenses.

However, two of the licenses approved by the town have not been approved by the state, and McArthur said there continues to be interest from prospective businesses, particularly those looking to establish cultivation facilities.

The grows have the potential to generate more revenue for the town than the stores due to a 5 percent excise tax on unprocessed marijuana that voters approved last November. Andersen and some others see that vote, which saw 109 people supporting the excise tax and 57 people voting against it, as an indication of how the town’s residents feel about the issue.

With all of this, Hayward said she believes the town needs to press pause on the marijuana issue for the time being, adding that she does not think the town can afford the lawsuit that would surely come if the town were to ban already existing businesses.

But the town seems to be repeating the same mistake on hitching its economy to a single industry — oil and gas in the past and marijuana in the present, Hayward said.

To that point, McClung and others say it is not their responsibility to say who gets to open a business and who does not. The current code does include distance stipulations — marijuana businesses cannot be located within 500 feet of a school or within 150 feet of another recreational marijuana business — and if a hopeful business owner meets all the code requirements, the market should determine which businesses are successful, trustees contend.

As for the pace, McClung said if he were a business owner wanting to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in a town, a lengthy permitting process would discourage that investment.

As for Hayward’s point about potentially banning existing businesses, that question has yet to be answered. Parachute voters, due to a citizen-lead ballot initiative, will decide in November whether or not to ban the marijuana industry, which could set the stage for a precedent-setting sequence of events in a state that it very much acting as a test case regarding recreational marijuana and how it is regulated.

Some feel the results this Tuesday will be an indication of the vote coming in November.

“Everything will kind of come out in the wash next Tuesday,” McClung said. “It will be a really good gauge of what the November election might look like.”

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