ONTARIO — Is the $220 application fee the city charges for those who work at marijuana shops a waste of time or vital to public safety?
That was the question at Thursday’s Ontario City Council study session, and by the end of an hour-long discussion there was no clear answer — and the fee remains in place.
The $220 fee paid to the city, part of which goes toward a background check, is on top of a $100 fee charged
by the state to do a background check on workers at dispensaries.
The state’s certification is good for five years; the
city’s card must be renewed every year.
Councilor Freddy Rodriguez raised the question after seeing criticism of the fee on social media.
Councilor Marty Justus said the fee looks an awful lot like an employee tax, and the board wondered aloud whether it was fair to workers at the lower end of the pay scale and if it was repetitive given the state’s background check.
Then there was the issue of staff time to get the background checks completed.
“I don’t have time to do background checks,” Police Chief Steven Romero told the council, adding he has a part-time employee doing them. If that isn’t enough, he said higher-paid workers, such as a lieutenant or himself, would have to step in.
City Manager Adam Brown acknowledged the city is behind on getting the approvals through.
“We’re trying to keep up, we’re behind,” he said, but noted that no businesses or employees had complained to his office.
But as councilors continued to ask questions and hear comments from Brown, Romero, City Attorney Larry Sullivan and Community Development Director Dan Cummings, the potential benefits of the fees and the additional background check slowly went from being panned to being praised.
Cummings said it appears the state is doing thorough background checks on dispensary owners but not nearly as detailed of checks on workers, therefore the city is not duplicating its efforts.
Romero said his department is running the same background check as the state but it would be a more recent check, sometimes by months.
“We don’t know when the state ran that background check … this is kind of a little safety net,” he said.
Rodriguez said the council promised to protect residents when the dispensary opened, and the additional check could help with that.
“I would like to believe that our local background check can have better insight to more local, recent, ongoing information,” he said.
Currently, a potential dispensary employee can be rejected by the city for having a felony conviction for the manufacture and delivery of a schedule 1 or 2 controlled substance — those with a high potential for abuse or dependence.
Rodriguez wants the city to consider adding fraud and theft convictions to that list of automatic disqualifiers.
“This isn’t a regular industry, we have to make sure it’s done right. That’s what we promised the community, that it’s done right,” he said, adding that trusting employers to screen their employees isn’t enough.
“They cover their own butt, they don’t cover ours,” he said.
Romero called the existing ordinance “pretty sound, pretty clear,” but agreed that he’d consider other automatic disqualifiers, including “crimes of moral turpitude” indicative of somebody who could traffic in drugs on the street.
Councilor Norm Crume said he wants the city to look at whether renewal every year is necessary “to make sure we’re that we’re not just gouging people. But on the same hand we’re not getting the tax revenues because of our population and the amount we’re selling [and] we’re getting ripped off by the state, there’s no question about that. So that was our effort to get back some of that.”
He said he’s content to wait and see if complaints arise, “then we’ll deal with it.”
Cummings added that employers are picking up the costs of the cards, not employees, though Sullivan said the fee schedule could be revisited at any point.