UPLAND >> Was Upland correct in deciding to delay a citizen-backed initiative until the general election because officials believed it was a tax?
Or should the city have held a special election right away to let the residents decide whether to overturn the city’s ban on medical marijuana dispensaries with a measure that also proposed a $75,000 fee per dispensary?
The legal battle between the city and a pro-marijuana group has now reached the California Supreme Court. The case has garnered the interest of local and national taxpayers associations, believing its conclusion could have far-reaching implications.
“I think it could be a landmark case,” said attorney Roger Jon Diamond, who represents the California Cannabis Coalition.
On June 30, the state’s highest court granted the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association’s petition to review an appellate court ruling. The move followed a March decision from the Fourth District Appellate Court, which sided with the coalition, finding that Upland is obligated to hold a special election, and that the fees proposed in the measure weren’t a tax that required a general election vote.
By May, the city was ready to give up on the case. That’s when the foundation for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association stepped in and agreed to take on the case at no charge.
In the May filings, the taxpayers association raised concerns the appellate opinion, should it stand, would create a back door to pass or implement a tax without ever putting it on the ballot.
“The most important thing from a legal standpoint is we’ll have a decision on how you’ll deal with this decision at the future,” said Upland City Attorney Richard Adams.
The court received nine “friend of the court” briefs — including from the National Taxpayers Union and the Pacific Legal Foundation — urging the court to review the case or at least depublish the Court of Appeal decision.
“If allowed to stand, this decision will significantly change the meaning of the taxpayer provisions that apply to local tax initiative in California’s constitution,” wrote Teresa Casazza, president of the California Taxpayers Association. “This will, in turn, erode protections taxpayers have carefully put in place and reaffirmed over the past four decades.”
At its June 27 meeting, after more than a yearlong battle in court, the Upland City Council finally agreed to place the measure on the ballot. The California Cannabis Coalition first announced its intent to initiate the petition in late 2014. The legal quandary dates back to January 2015, when the initiative proposed by the coalition garnered the necessary signatures — 15 percent of the voters in the last election — to qualify for a special election.
But city officials blocked the move, arguing a component of the initiative, the part requiring dispensaries to pay $75,000 in annual licensing and inspection fees, was a tax. Any new tax by a government agency must be approved by the voters in a general election, the city argued.
As for what impact this decision could have on Upland, Adams said, “At this point, it would tell the City Council whether they were correct or not. If Upland was wrong in delaying it to the general election, then we would have to pay the attorney fees.”
If that were the case, Adams said the law firm that represents the city would then step in to advocate for the city in determining the costs.
Diamond said the city wanted one of two things and they got it: either to get the opinion depublished or get it reviewed by the state Supreme Court.
“One of our arguments is it’s not even a tax and therefore that is irrelevant. It’s possible the Supreme Court will consider our question,” he said.
Neither party has requested to expedite the case, Diamond said.
As of now, the taxpayers association has 30 days from June 30 to file an opening brief and the California Cannabis Coalition will then have 30 days to respond.
Diamond, who described himself as an internal optimist, said, “We could get a better ruling from the Supreme Court than the Court of Appeal.”