Saugus selectmen begin cannabis hearings — but fail to vote

Chairman Anthony Cogliano urges board to "do our own research."

Renderings of the proposed locations of seven cannabis companies seeking to open their doors in Saugus. (Item graphic)

SAUGUS — The Board of Selectmen across two nights this week heard pitches from each of the seven cannabis companies seeking to open their doors in town, with a decision looming on the issuance of up to three special permits — though it appears no votes will be taken anytime soon.

The board’s chairman, Anthony Cogliano, indicated he intends to conduct site visits for those companies that are already operating in other communities, prompting an objection from fellow Selectman Michael Serino.

Serino indicated that he felt Cogliano would simply be repeating the work done by the Marijuana Establishment Review Committee by conducting site visits, a step the various town officials comprising that committee already took.

Furthermore, Serino and Vice Chair Debra Panetta, in citing a legal opinion from Town Counsel John Vasapolli, emphasized that the role of the selectmen as the special permit-granting authority is simply to review the proposed locations — not taking into account possible financial and community benefits to the town.

Vasapolli noted that Town Manager Scott Crabtree is designated as the authority to grant contracts under the town’s charter, meaning he would be responsible for negotiating all Host Community Agreements with dispensaries. As a result, all the selectmen can do is offer Crabtree their recommendations on locations, with Crabtree under no obligation to ultimately sign an agreement with those companies.

Crabtree, along with the Marijuana Establishment Review Committee, spent months reviewing each of the proposals earlier this year. The committee ultimately recommended that Uma Flowers and Sanctuary Medicinals be awarded permits.

The selectmen were set to meet with Crabtree and the committee to review the report but were advised not to by Vasapolli, who cautioned that board members should not discuss the financial implications of any of the applicants, and said the report constituted recommendations to Crabtree and not the board.

But, Cogliano took issue with several of the report’s conclusions, including the recommendation to grant just two licenses.

“Why are we only issuing two, when we can issue three?” he asked, noting that his intention in lobbying Town Meeting to permit marijuana establishments was to bring additional revenue to the town. “I am flabbergasted by that report.”

“I waited nine months to get a report that should’ve taken nine weeks,” he added. “I can’t see how we would entertain not granting three licenses.”
Cogliano also took issue with the recommendation of Uma Flowers and its proposed location at 24 Broadway as the committee’s top choice, saying “I think the worst location got the best score.”

On Thursday, he said he was most impressed by the presentation from Triple M, which has a proposed location of 1393 Broadway, a property owned by the developer Sal Palumbo, a friend of Cogliano’s whom the chairman worked for in 2016.

Cogliano filed three disclosures with the town clerk’s office ahead of the hearings, because of that aforementioned relationship with Palumbo, and personal relationships with Bostica co-owner and CEO Ray Falite, and Medi Mirnasiri, who owns the property Olde World Remedies is leasing.

He insisted that those relationships would not sway his decisions, and said he believed those three companies were “jilted” in the report because of their connections to him.

Cogliano said he intended to discuss his frustrations with the process when the board meets with Crabtree next week for a quarterly update.

While Panetta said she was ready to take a vote Wednesday night after hearing all seven proposals, and Serino indicated he too would be willing to make a decision, Cogliano was firm in his desire not to vote. With Selectman Jeff Cicolini having recused himself from the hearings because his accounting firm does business with one of the companies, any vote would require all four remaining members.

The selectmen’s issuance of S-2 permits only gives the companies the go-ahead to enter into negotiations with Crabtree on an agreement, a process that itself would likely take months. And, Crabtree has the authority to ultimately reject the recommendations of the board.

Cogliano indicated he believed companies would have recourse if Crabtree failed to finalize any agreements.

“It’s not like you can bleed these people dry,” he said, adding that issuing the Host Community Agreement is the “easier of the two parts.”

Panetta, on the other hand, was highly complimentary of the work done by the committee, saying those that served were “honorable people.”

“I heard everything that needed to be said,” she said of the more than six hours selectmen spent hearing the proposals.

During the meeting, Panetta suggested the board eliminate some of the companies from the process, but Cogliano said he was not prepared to do so at this point.

“Some presentations were more in depth (and had) more information than others,” she said, adding that she would like to expedite the process.

Selectman Corinne Riley indicated she believed the board should not approach the issuance of S-2 permits to the cannabis companies differently than any other S-2. Typically, board members receive recommendations from the police and fire departments and the building commissioner before voting to issue a permit or a license.

With Police Chief Michael Ricciardelli, Fire Chief Michael Newbury, and Building Commissioner Michael LaVecchia serving on the committee, the selectmen essentially have those recommendations in hand.

The committee ranked each applicant — with Uma Flowers and Sanctuary Medicinals topping the list followed by, in order, Triple M, Olde World Remedies, NortheastCann, Bostica, and Broadway Cannabis. The proposed locations for those companies are 24 Broadway, 181 Broadway, 1393 Broadway, 173 Main St., 1529 Broadway, 44 Broadway, and 1268 Broadway, respectively.

The committee conducted its work based on the responses to a Request for Information issued by Crabtree’s office in January.

Two of the companies — Broadway Cannabis and Olde World Remedies — said they were not given the chance to present to the committee.

But Crabtree, in a statement Thursday, said “All respondents to the RFI … were held to the same standard and had the same opportunity to present their proposals prior to the committee’s report being issued.”

“Every respondent now before the Board of Selectmen met with the entire committee and were given fair and adequate time to present and answer committee questions,” the statement reads. “Moreover, the committee had lengthy site visits with respondents with Cannabis Establishments in Massachusetts where respondents had additional time to present, conduct a tour of their facility and operations, and ask and respond to questions by the committee.”

The statement goes on to say that the committee cannot comment on any amendments companies made to their proposals after responding to the RFI earlier this year. Most, if not all, of the companies appearing before the selectmen offered their responses to the report, with some saying they made changes to their plans based on feedback offered by the committee.

Across their presentations, companies sought to differentiate themselves, and touted the potential benefits for Saugus if they were allowed to open. But it appears that selectmen allowing that information to sway their decisions would be a violation of their designated role in the process.

With the board set to reconvene on Oct. 4, it seems likely there will be additional pressure on Cogliano to acquiesce to fellow members’ desire to grant the permits and allow Crabtree to begin discussions.

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