Business owner accuses Breckenridge council of conflict of interest
Gary and his wife, Janet Freese, have owned and operated Breckenridge Art Gallery on Main Street for the last 38 years.
It’s been downtown for 45 years, making it one of most established businesses in the historic district.
Gary Freese has also been one of the most vocal opponents of allowing marijuana shops to operate in the town’s Main Street district. And at last Tuesday’s city council meeting, during public comments, he challenged the integrity of three sitting council members, accusing them of a possible conflict of interest for accepting campaign contributions from individuals associated with Breckenridge Cannabis Club before the April elections.
“The three members elected this spring each received a minimum of $500 from the Cannabis Club,” Freese told the council. “Mark Burke, Elisabeth Lawrence and Erin Gigliello received donations. The donations appear to be legal, but it appears the three candidates did not recuse themselves from discussing the issue.
“At this time Mayor (John) Warner, we request the council recuse Mark Burke, Elisabeth Lawrence and Erin Gigliello from all voting on all Main Street marijuana issues. And for all recused, any previous votes they’ve taken on this issue should be nullified.”
Warner was the first to disagree with Freese’s allegations of a conflict of interest.
“My understanding of a legal contribution, is if it’s legal, and it’s reported, there is no conflict of interest,” the mayor said. “It would be just like you giving me a donation under the impression I was opposed to marijuana on Main Street. It wouldn’t prevent me from voting on the issue. “
Warner, along with Councilmembers Gary Gallagher and Wendy Wolfe, have consistently voted against allowing marijuana on Main Street. The other four would allow it, as long as there are certain restrictions, including limiting the number of stores, keeping them on the second floor only and other spacing requirements.
Town attorney Tim Berry referenced the town’s ethics ordinance, and explained the campaign donations and subsequent votes are not a conflict of interest. He said if elected officials could not vote or discuss issues that campaign contributors support, it could grind government to a halt. The process is a basic function of how politics operate.
“I don’t believe, under town’s current ethics ordinance, that it creates a conflict on a legislative matter,” Berry said. “As I understand it these are legal campaign contributions from legal entities. It strikes me that if a candidate is to be disqualified from discussing any matter associated with someone they took a campaign contribution from it would really stifle the process.”
The rest of the council agreed. And the council members themselves ultimately determine whether something is a conflict of interest.
“Do I see a conflict of interest? Taking this on face value, I don’t see that,” Wolfe said of the campaign contributions.
“I don’t see a conflict of interest,” said Councilman Ben Brewer.
“It’s clearly not illegal,” Gallagher added.
Burke added that he accepted much more campaign donations from people who don’t support his decision to allow marijuana on Main Street than he ever received from BCC.
“They made me a contribution along with many others who don’t support this decision,” Burke said. “This is cherry-picking one donation. I have many from people who don’t support this. There were people working with me on my campaign who disagree with me on this. The recusal process is if you have a financial gain to make. Whether or not they move to Airport Road or stay on Main Street, either way, and neither does anyone in my family.”
Freese later made a comment to Lawrence some considered a possible threat to her job at The Summit Foundation, a local nonprofit that distributes funds throughout the county.
“In the way you have chosen to position yourself, you are somewhat biting the hand that feeds The Summit Foundation,” Freese said.
“Gary, that’s you and your friends’ threats to my job,” Lawrence replied. “Let it be known for the record.”
Brian Rogers, general manager at Breckenridge Cannabis Club, spoke next. He defended the campaign contributions.
“We knew going into this new council that no promises were made,” Rogers said. “Our donations paled in comparison to the totality of your campaigns. There is no financial gain for any of you; you work in completely different fields.”
He then referenced the ballot initiative they started earlier this summer.
“We had a ballot initiative we were pressing,” Rogers said. “We weren’t depending on this council. We were collecting signatures to bring this to the voters ourselves.”
The accusations came on the heels of an afternoon workshop in which the council discussed Wendy Wolfe’s conflict of interest regarding marijuana businesses in town. Her husband is a local commercial real estate broker who could potentially benefit from the proposed ordinance. He presented the council a written document agreeing not to deal with any marijuana businesses in the downtown overlay district until after the issue is resolved.
After the meeting, Freese said he has no hard feelings against Breckenridge Cannabis Club, but feels recreational marijuana sold on Main Street is a stain on the community.
“I’m passionate about the community,” Freese said. “We live here because it is a family-friendly community. If it gets rebranded, which can happen due to social media, it might change the character of Main Street. We want to stay here and be part of this community, but a change like that will hurt our business.”
Freese said he doesn’t want BCC to leave the town, just downtown.
“I think the happy medium is for all the shops to live symbiotically on Airport Road. They can still provide a service for the community, it’s just a two-minute drive from downtown, and allow us to retain the family-friendly character of our community.”
Now, the issue looks to be headed to the voters on Dec. 9 in an advisory election. Meanwhile, the debate rages around town. A couple weeks ago, an online petition was created to garner support against marijuana on Main Street. This week, a counterpetition was created on the same website, ipetition.com.
Many of the comments on the opposing petition point out the proliferation of bars downtown, and question why those don’t counter the family-friendly character of Main Street.
“If we can close down Main Street several times every year for drunk fests, what harm will a couple of cannabis shops cause?” wrote Eric Carson.
“I disagree with this ban,” wrote Joe Moore. “Please don’t let overly emotional and coercive politics get in the way of good business. Thinking alcohol is more family friendly than (marijuana) is a backwards and confused outlook (see TV’s Mad Men). Compare a dangerous, addicting and violence-inducing drug like alcohol to a safe (marijuana) … no-brainer.”
Ultimately, even after the results of the advisory election are in, it’s going to be up to the city council to either craft a new ordinance allowing marijuana on Main or let the existing ordinance that bans it stand.
In the meantime, those on both sides of the debate appear to be settling deeper into opposing trenches.
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