SPRINGFIELD – City Councilor Justin Hurst has asked the Office of Attorney General Maura Healey in a letter dated Jan. 31 to investigate the process the city of Springfield has used to award licenses for cannabis businesses in the city.
Hurst asserted in his letter, “Mayor Domenic Sarno and members of his administration rigged the selection process in both rounds to benefit those applicants with political ties and significant business interest in the city already, while more qualified applicants were forced to wait to be considered until future rounds. Inevitably, this political patronage will result in a myriad of lawsuits that will financially impact tax-paying citizens in this city.”
Hurst’s letter comes after Springfield resident Frank Dailey of Boston Bud Factory has filed a Freedom of Information Request with the city of Springfield Procurement Department, in accordance with Massachusetts Public Records Law (M. G. L. Chapter 66, Section 10). Dailey is questioning why his application for a dispensary has been rejected twice.
City Solicitor Edward Pikula responded to Hurst’s accusations and wrote, “While powerful people have been disappointed by the results, the mayor has not caved into political pressure. Mayor Sarno has made every effort to maintain a process that has been fair and carried out with the highest integrity.”
Hurst charged, “The selection of marijuana operators has been a closed-door process where the administration has refused to release to the public how applications were scored and the applications themselves, which led to my request for a formal audit to be conducted by city Auditor Yong No on June 29, 2021, as chairman of the audit committee. Mr. No agreed and on Tuesday, December 14, 2021, the audit findings were presented to the audit sub-committee, which I have attached for your review. A summary of the findings are as follows:
“There were errors in tallying the scores of applicants during Phase 2, resulting in an erroneous score for an applicant who potentially would have been awarded a host community agreement had it not been for the erroneous score.
“A marijuana transportation company applicant during Phase 2 was awarded a host community agreement despite its noncompliance with the city’s marijuana zoning ordinance.
“The composition of the Selection Committee to review cannabis company proposals during Phase I and Phase 2 did not comply with the city’s marijuana ordinance.
“For Phase 1, critical documents, including applicant’s score sheets, could not be located; and certain information provided could not be clarified by the Phase 1 administrator, both of which resulted in a scope limitation for our review of the applicants’ scores.
“Unfortunately, the audit findings were all but ignored by the administration who knew that rectifying any wrongdoing would result in one of their preferred operators not receiving a Host Community Agreement. Even worse, they have been unwilling to make whole an applicant who due to a scoring error, did not receive a Host Community Agreement when it should have. The eight scoring errors in Phase II of the selection process along with missing score sheets in Phase I, raise serious concerns that warrant further investigation by someone who is not on the city’s payroll.”
Pikula’s responded to Hurt’s comments about the audit, “As to the findings in the audit, the error alleged as to scoring could not be verified by this office. The personnel who participated in the tallying have left the city’s employment to start careers elsewhere. This office reached out to them and both employees disputed that any tallying error occurred. According to the employee from procurement, the numbers were triple checked and then verified by an employee in procurement who did not participate in the evaluation. However, the information obtained by the internal auditor to conduct his tally did include supplemental information that was not reviewed by the former employees, as such it is plausible that an error occurred. Whether or not an error actually occurred could not be determined with certainty. Even assuming the error did occur, it is somewhat misleading to state that ‘an applicant who potentially would have been awarded a Host Community Agreement had it not been for the erroneous score.’ The decision of whether to issue an HCA [Host Community Agreement] is solely within the authority and discretion of the mayor.”
Hurst wrote, “Mayor Sarno awarded a Host Community Agreement to Page Cultivate, LLC who is in direct violation of the 250-foot buffer necessary between an adult use marijuana establishment and both a residence and residential zone as required by section 4.7.114 A (4) of our zoning laws. In the previous round, when a marijuana applicant was in violation of the buffer requirements the application was not even scored. Serious red flags are raised when the administration is willing to violate our own zoning laws to ensure that an applicant who is not qualified receives a Host Community Agreement.
“The Office of Planning and Economic Development, through conversations with Page Cultivate, LLC, brought the buffer violations to their attention and allowed them an opportunity to rectify the violation after the RFP/Q had closed. No other marijuana operators in Phases I or II were afforded the same opportunity when they failed to meet the zoning requirements and or failed to submit documentation required in the RFP/Q.
Furthermore, Addendum No 2, RFP/Q No. 21-107 Item No. 10 states clearly that “Proposers will not be allowed to supplement their RFP/Q submissions beyond the identified due date.”
“Page Cultivate LLC is seeking to build a 47,000 square foot cultivation facility on land that is owned by the Goodman family. This same piece of land was the subject of controversy a few years ago when Mayor Sarno was criticized for entering into an ill-advised $16 million 20-year lease with the Goodman family for a facility that included a shooting range for the Police Department. Now, it appears that the mayor has pulled out all of the stops to ensure the Goodman family is once again the beneficiary of a lucrative lease from a cultivation facility to be built on land adjacent to the shooting range. Everyone knows that this property will yield millions once the cultivation facility is constructed. And the Goodman family understand this also, which is why they have padded the mayor’s campaign coffers to the tune of $8,000 dollars.”
Pikula responded, “In July 2021, it was reported that a cannabis cultivator applicant was awarded a host community award during the Phase II did and did not meet the zoning buffer requirements as promulgated by the city’s zoning ordinance. The audit did not find any such irregularities … Simply put so long as the ANR Plan shows frontage along a public way that affords practical, safe, and efficient access, the duty required of Mr. Dromey, as agent for the Planning Board under §§ 81L and 81P is ministerial in character.”
Hurst also charged. “Diem Springfield, LLC (the only other cultivation applicant in Phase II) fell 1 point shy of Page Cultivate, LLC according to City Councilor Tracye Whitfield’s testimony at our last hearing’s meeting even though Diem Springfield, LLC complied with our zoning ordinance and Page Cultivate, LLC did not. She also highlighted that there were significant questions raised by the marijuana review committee that went unanswered by the administration regarding Page Cultivate, LLC’s apparent violation of the buffer zones.”
Hurst, wrote, “Finally, City Solicitor Edward M. Pikula serves as a consultant for marijuana operators in addition to his full-time job as a city solicitor where his department oversees the marijuana selection process. His involvement with other marijuana operators throughout the state needs to be investigated by an independent party to ensure that there are no ethical violations or at worst any corruption that may have impacted who received HCA’s here in Springfield.”
Pikula’s response: “As to personal allegations against me, again, any outside work has been carried out in compliance within the terms of my employment, and in compliance with all applicable laws.”