WASHTENAW COUNTY, MI – At least $125,000 in political contributions have fueled efforts to overturn new Ypsilanti Township rules governing the location of marijuana businesses, though who exactly is bankrolling the campaign remains murky.
The source of all the cash is a newly-formed Michigan nonprofit called Advocates for Michigan’s Future, according to a recent campaign finance disclosure, but that’s where the publicly-visible money trail ends.
The group has paid between $10 and $26 per valid signature for petition-gathering firms to coax nearly 8,000 people to sign a petition challenging new township zoning maps governing the location of recreational marijuana sales, according to the disclosure and legal filings.
When that effort fell flat, Ypsilanti Township received another roughly 400 sheets of signatures seeking to bring a separate proposal to voters banning the sale of marijuana in the township, according to township Clerk Heather Jarrell Roe.
The political spending is all on behalf of a local ballot question committee behind the effort, which calls itself Ypsilanti Township Citizens for Responsible Government and has not returned several calls seeking comment.
The structure of the political campaign leaves voters in the dark, according to one expert.
The ballot effort “smacks of dark money,” said Simon Schuster, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
“The lack of transparency in this process and its motivations, and the unwillingness to speak with you is indicative to me of actors who want to obscure their real motivations for this ballot proposal,” he said.
Dark money refers to political spending meant to influence voters where donors and the true origin of the funds aren’t disclosed.
When it comes to cannabis – a nearly $2-billion-per-year industry in Michigan – it’s nothing new, Schuster said.
“Where the recreational marijuana industry is concerned, especially in situations where a significant amount of money is liable to be made or lost, over the past few years there’s been a significant history of dark money being employed to influence local law to those ends,” he said.
It’s also left the elected leaders who crafted and approved the township zoning rules without a clue about who they’re up against.
“I literally have no idea who is funding this petition drive,” said township Supervisor Brenda Stumbo in an email, blasting the effort as “a bunch of smoke and mirrors” and accusing the group of misleading township residents.
“I truly believe they are pro marijuana big money that want to dictate zoning,” she said. “I will never sign a petition that is funded by unknown people who have unlimited dollars to spend.”
First petition drive fails, but the legal battle is ongoing
Despite devoting roughly $100,000 to signature-gathering in March and early April, according to a campaign disclosure, the first effort to challenge Ypsilanti Township’s zoning ordinance – the local law governing where different kinds of development can take place – appears to have come up short.
Beginning in late February, Ypsilanti Township Citizens for Responsible Government began circulating a petition seeking to challenge the zoning ordinance and maps township leaders OK’d on Feb. 15, after an extensive process of updating them.
The group hoped to force a voter referendum that, if successful, would strike parts of the local rules allowing a range of recreational and medical marijuana facilities as permitted uses in the township’s industrial-commercial zoning district, an area between I-94 and U.S. 12 on the township’s eastern boundary, near Willow Run Airport.
But to do so under Michigan law they needed signatures at least equal to 15% of the local registered voters who cast ballots in the last gubernatorial election.
On March 22, as the 30-day deadline to force the vote neared, the group sued Ypsilanti Township and Michigan Secretary of State Joceyln Benson in federal court, claiming the law made it “nearly impossible” to succeed in populous areas like Ypsilanti Township, violating its constitutional rights to “free political speech and direct democracy.”
Read more: Group sues Michigan Secretary of State, Ypsilanti Township over petition law
On March 26, the ballot question committee submitted 7,895 signatures – more than double the amount required, according to Jarrell Roe. However, more than half were invalid after she and her staff compared them to voter rolls, she said, and the township issued an April 13 letter telling the group it had failed to make the ballot.
That sparked a renewed round of legal claims from the committee, which in court accused the township of misleading it over the exact due date of the petitions – a claim the township denies.
Speaking at an April 19 Ypsilanti Township board meeting, township Attorney Doug Winters called the lawsuit “obviously without merit.” Winters said language on the petition the group circulated sought to deceive residents.
The petition states local rules allow recreational marijuana sales “within five feet of township homeowners,” a claim the attorney said is “totally false.”
Hannah Stocker, a Farmington-based lawyer representing the ballot question committee, did not return calls and emails seeking comment.
Second petition seeks to ban marijuana sales
The group’s legal battle is still pending, but in the meantime it moved forward with another petition.
It relied on state law allowing ballot campaigns to completely prohibit marijuana sales in local municipalities, and hoped to bring voters in the Aug. 2 primary election a measure reinstating a marijuana moratorium in Ypsilanti Township.
But an April 27 news release – the first public statement from the group outside of court – struck a different tone. In it, spokesperson Jasahn Larsosa, a Detroit mayoral candidate last year, said the group isn’t against cannabis facilities in the township.
The committee instead formed to “combat the discriminatory effects” of the new zoning ordinance and its “lack of social equity opportunities,” according to the release, which accused officials of placing marijuana businesses in “one of the most economically constrained areas of the township.”
Larsosa did not respond to a call and a text requesting comment.
The second petition effort also appears to have suffered the same fate at the first.
Jarrell Roe said in a letter issued Friday, April 29, that the petitions submitted didn’t meet the threshold of valid signatures required to get the measure on the ballot.
Who is backing campaign to challenge local marijuana rules?
While it’s hard to say who’s behind the Ypsilanti Township ballot measures, marijuana industry insiders have played a large role in shaping local law elsewhere in Michigan through the campaigns, spending large sums in the process, according to Schuster, whose nonprofit seeks to shine light on the role of money in Michigan politics.
In Ypsilanti Township, the political spending disclosed so far has come entirely in the form of in-kind contributions from Advocates for Michigan’s Future, the nonprofit corporation formed on March 18.
According to a campaign finance disclosure, beginning weeks earlier, on Feb. 25, the nonprofit was paying to print petitions and spent $500 on “consulting” from Latrice Moore, the township resident who ultimately filed them.
Michigan records list Markeytia Jordan as the nonprofit’s incorporator, alongside a Detroit address.
Jordan also serves as Ypsilanti Township Citizens for Responsible Government’s treasurer. The group has not returned multiple phone calls to a phone number it lists on campaign finance records.
A reporter contacted other people the records say were paid for consulting on the campaign in an attempt to learn more about the group and its backers.
Reached by phone, Nicole Reid, whose firm Green Political Strategy, LLC received roughly $900 for consulting, would only accept questions by email and then did not respond. Ty Buffington, paid $2,200 for consulting work and listed alongside an Ann Arbor address on the disclosure, also did not respond to an email.
But Mark Grebner, a veteran Michigan political consultant and Ingham County commissioner who received $500 for consulting, did reveal who had hired him.
Grebner, who said he provided technical expertise on petition circulation, pointed to Sam Pernick, another political organizer and consultant, though Grebner said the funds were likely routed though a corporation and he didn’t know the details of the petition campaign in Ypsilanti Township.
Pernick, who Grebner described as an “enthusiastic progressive,” worked on marijuana legalization in Michigan, according to the website for his consulting firm, and has served as treasurer for ballot groups across Michigan seeking to allow marijuana sales where local leaders have opted out, campaign finance records show.
In Ypsilanti Township, Pernick appears to be working for the opposite cause. When reached by phone, he declined to comment, or hear questions.
“I don’t do press statements,” Pernick said.
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