By Mark E. Vogler
Board of Selectmen Chair Anthony Cogliano said he doesn’t trust the findings of the town’s Marijuana Establishment Review Committee (MERC) and will press forward with his own investigation to determine which of the seven companies are best suited to operate a retail pot business in Saugus. “I just think the whole process was unfair,” Cogliano told colleagues Wednesday night after the board had completed two nights of hearings totaling close to seven hours reviewing applications from seven companies seeking a Special Permit (S-2) to open commercial pot establishments in town.
“I think the worst locations got the best scores,” Cogliano said of the two businesses that the MERC report recommended for S-2 permits.
The town’s Marijuana Establishment Review Committee in July recommended just two companies be issued S-2 permits:
- Uma Flowers, LLC with a proposed location at 24 Broadway (Route 1 North) – the site of a former house that was torn down – was the unanimous selection of the seven-member committee, achieving a perfect score of 140 total points, based on an “exceptional” rating by each member in each of the five categories that were considered.
- Sanctuary Medicinals, with a proposed location of 181 Broadway (Route 1 South), also received a favorable recommendation to be issued a special permit for zoning by selectmen to locate at the site of the former 99 Restaurant. The business received a total of 118 points out of a possible 140.
“I don’t like any part of the process whatsoever,” Cogliano said. “We’re entitled to three licenses at a minimum. Three licenses brings in more money than two,” he said.
In an interview after Wednesday night’s meeting, Board of Selectmen Vice Chair Debra Panetta said she was prepared to vote on which applicants were most deserving of the S-2 license. “I would have taken a vote tonight if they were ready,” Panetta said. “There were some presentations that were much more in depth with much more information than others. And some of these operators had much more experience,” she said.
But Cogliano said he was in “no hurry” to vote and insisted that the board’s investigation involve site visits of facilities run by each of the applicants.
Selectmen voted 4-0 to continue the hearings until Oct. 4.
“I want to come up with my own conclusions. I intend to do our own investigation and due diligence,” Cogliano said.
Selectman Jeff Cicolini has previously recused himself from participating in the hearings because of a potential conflict of interest – one of the seven companies is a client of his accounting firm. Since S-2 permits require a four-fifth’s approval by selectmen, any of the applicants will need the backing of the other four selectmen.
Obtaining consensus on any of the applications could be challenging, as there is disagreement over how the selectmen should pursue their review of the S-2 permit applications. For instance, Selectman Michael Serino said he will not participate in any site review of the applications.
Selectman Panetta said she will limit her participation to Saugus sites only. “I will go to a site visit in my hometown, not in another community,” Panetta said. “Our job is location – to find the best location in Saugus. We are granting a special permit – not a license. I want to do the right thing for the town. It would be great if all four of us can agree. If we can’t come to a consensus, we wind up with zero,” she said.
Panetta has concerns about the board focusing on its own responsibilities instead of matters that don’t involve its duties. On Tuesday, she sought a legal opinion from Town Counsel John Vasapolli on Special Permit Marijuana Establishments. She even wondered whether the board should be discussing host community benefits.
Article 22 of the town’s Zoning Bylaws “provides that the Board of Selectmen shall consider that the establishment is designed to minimize any adverse impact on abutters and other parties in interest, meets all permitting requirements of the Commonwealth and state laws, meets all zoning requirements, provides adequate security to protect the health and safety of others, and adequately addresses the issues of traffic demand and parking,” Vasapoli advised in his legal opinion.
“The role of the Board of Selectmen is exclusively as a special permit granting authority for the use of a Marijuana establishment at the particular location under the Zoning bylaws of the Town of Saugus. This role does not include discussion or negotiation of benefits to the town pursuant to a host community agreement as the negotiation of the Host Community Agreement is conducted by the Town Manager,” Vasapolli wrote.
“In conclusion, the roles of the Board of Selectmen and the Town Manager are separate and distinct in regulating the operation of Marijuana Establishments within the town. The Board of Selectmen sit as special permit granting authority under the zoning bylaws and the town manager negotiates and executes the Host Community Agreement with the Marijuana establishments that meet the criteria he has established.”
Selectman Corinne Riley said is concerned that six of the seven applicants had updated information in the MERC report or questioned its accuracy. With so much disagreement, Riley said. she would like to have a meeting with Town Manager Scott C. Crabtree and the committee to review the concerns. “I’d like to have a meeting with the manager and the committee to find out what’s the truth,” Riley said. “I just feel that we should have something to ask the committee and the town manager. We’re hearing two different things.”
Cogliano said the board should have had such a meeting before the report was finalized.
Cogliano said he was disappointed that Crabtree did not attend this week’s hearings so he could answer questions. “He should be sitting here answering questions as the town manager,” Cogliano said.
Committee members included Town Manager Scott C. Crabtree, Police Chief Michael Ricciardelli, Fire Chief Michael Newbury, Director of Public Health John R. Fralick III, Procurement Director Michele Wendell, Vice Chair of the Saugus Planning Board Jeanette Meredith and Building Commissioner Michael LaVecchia.
“These people are honorable people,” Panetta said, responding to Cogliano’s criticism that they conducted an “unfair” review.
Cogliano criticized the town manager for the way he handled the review. “I’m sure it would be different if he weren’t involved in it,” he said.
Cogliano said he was investigated by the Ethics Commission for his ties to three marijuana companies, but was cleared.
“The problem I have with the entire process is the same problem I have with everything involving the Town manager, communication.
“After nine months we were handed a report from the MERC and told to accept it. I asked for a meeting with the BOS to discuss the findings and was told no, as it would violate the open meeting law. How discussing a written, public document would violate the open meeting law is beyond me. While I have plenty to say about the findings of the report, these are continued hearings so I will save my comments until the end.
“I will state that I filed three disclosures during the process as I have three friends involved. Two of them are land owners. Medi Mirnasari of 173 Main Street where Old World remedies is seeking to be licensed. Sal Palumbo who owns the property where Triple M is seeking to lease and Ray Falite who is seeking to lease the property where Oye was located.
“Because of this, someone, I have an idea who, turned me into the State Ethics commission saying that I was seeking compensation to get these three licenses awarded. After a five minute investigation I was exonerated of the bogus claims and asked to file a disclosure before voting on those applicants and I did. I’m not at all shocked that none of the three were recommended by the committee even though some of them did an outstanding job in their presentation. No friends of mine should receive preferential treatment in a licensing matter but they should at least be treated fairly, and that clearly was not the case at this point in the process. The applicant seeking to lease 173 Main Street, Old world Remedies wasn’t even afforded a meeting before the MERC as the previous meetings went late and they never even gave him another date. That’s not how I treat people and that’s not how the process works. I’ve seen enough and heard enough over the last two days to make me realize the Board of Selectmen as the S2 granting Authority for the Town of Saugus, needs to further our investigation before granting any special permits. I will be setting up site visits at the applicant’s dispensaries and growing facilities to get a better understanding of how they operate. I will continue the hearings next month to discuss those findings and seek further public comment which again was lacking in the MERC report.
“Then and only then will I be willing to grant the S2 permits.”
(Editor’s Note: In next week’s edition, The Saugus Advocate will take a closer look at the seven companies vying to open marijuana establishments in Saugus.)