At their last virtual meeting on April 21, Milpitas City Councilmembers had a discussion about voting to include a cannabis sales tax on the November, 2020, ballot, thereby giving Milpitas residents the ability to vote on the issue.
“The power is with the people in our democracy,” said Mayor Tran, who proposed the possible inclusion of the tax toward the top of the meeting. “And I want to ask the Council for a future agenda item to explore a cannabis sales tax for November, and let the residents decide.”
Councilmember Anthony Phan, who has served on the City’s Cannabis Subcommittee since it was formed in 2017, told Tran he was “happy to move forward” on the issue.
Back in December, 2018, under immense pressure from community members who flooded council meetings in strong opposition to cannabis, Council voted 4-0 in favor of a permanent ban on cannabis businesses, along with any outdoor growing of the plants.
In 2016, Milpitas residents voted 51.2% in favor of Proposition 64, which made recreational marijuana legal in the state of California.
The Cannabis Subcommittee was formed with the intention of studying what bringing cannabis ordinances and tax measures to Milpitas would look like. The Subcommittee and City Staff drew up recommendations for 10 cannabis dispensaries, along with buffer zones, which Council did not approve, after hundreds of people came out to Council chambers to speak against the recommendations.
“Having a diverse revenue stream is always good for us, especially in the fiscal position that we are in, and the fiscal position we will inevitably be in…” said Councilmember Phan at the virtual meeting, seemingly referring to the inevitable financial hit that the City will take from the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. He then brought up the possibility of exploring other revenue-raising measures, mentioning that he would also like Council to explore a potential sales tax to support Milpitas’ public safety infrastructure and help to create a safety net.
Minutes later, things started to get heated…
Councilmember Karina Dominguez spoke up, stating that she wasn’t part of the old Council that had discussed the item back in 2018 (though she was part of the later vote to ban cannabis), and that she wanted to “ensure transparency and community engagement” on the issue. So she bluntly asked Councilmember Phan a question:
“I would like to clarify, Councilmember Phan, are you a lobbyist for medicinal marijuana? And if so, [City Attorney] Chris, would that be a violation of the Brown act or a conflict of interest for him to vote on this since he’s a lobbyist, and that’s what he does…?”
Phan, his voice raised, wasted no time with his reply: “I am not a lobbyist. You just asked me a question, and you did not allow me to answer the question. So let me speak on the record right now: I am not a lobbyist for the marijuana industry, and I will take legal action to dispel those rumors if they are brought up again…that is pure libel.”
Dominguez proceeded to turn to City Attorney Chris Diaz to define what a “lobbyist” is for the public, with Mayor Tran interjecting that they should stick to the topic of sales tax.
In speaking with The Beat about why she confronted Phan with the “lobbyist” question, Councilmember Dominguez mentioned that she was sworn into office (in December, 2018) just hours before the cannabis vote. Given that she wasn’t part of the hours-long discussions leading up to the vote, she wanted to get clarity on some things. “I do believe that our community defines lobbyist and consulting very similarly. So I wanted to know if he defined himself as a lobbyist or someone who was consulting for the cannabis industry…”
She also mentioned that she was surprised by Councilmember Phan’s response to the question.
“I was very surprised. I was caught off guard,” said Councilmember Dominguez. “I believe that as a Councilmember who represents the voice of those who live in Milpitas, I have the ability to ask those questions because it’s my responsibility to be the voice for those I serve.”
Dominguez told The Beat that she was not happy when, toward the end of discussing the topic at the meeting, Phan said to her: “You’ll hear from my lawyer.” She felt it was a “threat,” and said she was only seeking transparency.
Phan mentioned his attorney because Dominguez said she had never seen a letter from the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), which cleared Phan of any conflict of interest…
Back in 2018, Phan recused himself from weighing in on the cannabis issue, after feeling the heat from certain residents who demanded he not vote on the issue. The reason for their demand was Councilmember Phan’s work as a consultant for Pinnacle Strategy, which provides services, such as lobbying and land use consultation, to clients who are working with government entities. Some of those clients are part of the cannabis industry.
Phan, who worked as an independent contractor for Pinnacle Strategy from September, 2017, to May, 2018, made a total of $3,500 from the consulting gig. On December 28, 2018, in a letter written by the FPPC to Best Best & Krieger LLP (a firm that serves as City Attorney for the City of Milpitas), Counsel for FFPC concluded that Phan shouldn’t be prohibited from taking part in decisions related to the cannabis industry because “it is not reasonably foreseeable the decisions would have a material financial effect on his source of income interest in Pinnacle Strategy.”
However, that still does not sit right with some in the community. And those who were against cannabis coming to Milpitas in 2018 intend to make their voices heard about the potential ballot measure.
Individuals from the activist group Better Milpitas, who worked to organize the opposition to cannabis in 2018, aren’t happy that Milpitas Councilmembers are entertaining the topic of a cannabis sales tax yet again.
“About two years ago, Milpitas City Councilmembers voted 4-0 to permanently ban marijuana in the city due to tenacious and steadfast opposition of Milpitas citizens, repeatedly with hundreds of them packing the City Hall to reject marijuana vehemently. Mayor Tran also promised not to push for cannabis anymore,” replied a Better Milpitas representative in a statement to The Milpitas Beat. “It is incomprehensible and unacceptable that the ban has to be redecided again now!”
On Facebook, Better Milpitas wrote that 90% of people appearing at past council meetings spoke in favor of the cannabis ban. But along with Milpitas residents, there were also residents who came out from neighboring cities like Fremont and San Jose to express their disapproval of bringing cannabis into the community.
One Milpitas resident recently started an online petition in support of cannabis.
On Facebook, Mayor Tran asked how people felt about being able to potentially vote on the cannabis sales tax, and he drew in a great deal of responses.
Some were vehemently against it:
“No to cannabis. Don’t forget that we passed a permanent ban on cannabis. I wonder what made you guys want to eat your own words? Did you or will you get money from them? Can you think about the residents of Milpitas instead of just your own political campaign money? Please!!!”
Others supported the opportunity to vote:
“Yes Milpitas needs to vote on this. It makes absolutely no sense for our view to be different from the state and our neighboring cities. We need to think long term/Revenue for Milpitas…”
When asked why he proposed bringing a potential cannabis tax measure onto the November 2020 ballot after he’d voted to ban it in 2018, Mayor Tran told The Beat: “The cannabis issue in Milpitas is one that is not resolved. There remains divisive, unsettling discussions clearly among the Milpitas community. My stance all along has been to let the Milpitas residents and voters only vote once and for all on the issue of cannabis. I stand by my vote to ban the marijuana business industry, aka the status quo of cannabis in Milpitas.”
Tran also said that he is committed to advocating for the democratic right and American freedom for citizens to vote on any issue, and mentioned that Milpitas residents have long decided on issues, such as the measure to protect the hillside in 2016 and the proposed casino measure in 2014.
“I don’t think it’s American when any government somewhat prohibits its citizens from voting,” added Tran.
In the summer of 2018, the City surveyed 600 Milpitas residents and found that 75% of them were in favor of a cannabis sales tax measure. At that time, the Milpitas City Council discussed putting cannabis on the November, 2018, ballot for the voters to decide. Councilmembers Anthony Phan and Bob Nuñez and Vice Mayor Marsha Grilli voted to put the cannabis tax measure on the ballot, with Councilmember Garry Barbadillio opposed. Mayor Tran was absent due to an Air National Guard assignment to assist with the wildfires burning across California.
Since that vote required a supermajority of the Council (at least 4 council members required to vote “yes”) to pass, the cannabis tax measure didn’t make it onto the ballot that time around.
At the upcoming May 5 virtual City Council meeting, City staff will give a presentation on potentially adding the cannabis sales tax issue to the November 2020 ballot.
The Beat reached out to Councilmember Phan for comment, but received no response.