City updates on timeline for ballot measures for adult-use marijuana sales, new municipal judge

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The city is planning on sending decisions over whether to allow adult-use marijuana sales within city limits as well as whether to add an additional municipal court judge to help mitigate increasing caseloads to the public this November.

City Commissioners heard an update from City Attorney Jeff Hindoien on the expected timeline to put such measures on the ballot during the commission’s Tuesday work session.

According to the outlined schedule, public hearings for both measures would be scheduled during the Aug. 2 commission meeting, with the deadline of Aug. 30 to transmit resolutions with ballot language to the Elections Administrator Rina Moore.

As it relates to the adult-use marijuana sales, Hindoien said that staff will work to bring a regulatory framework for operative businesses within city limits so that the city prepared in the event the voters decide they want to authorize sales.

“That's going to take some digging, probably a work session or two, and then bringing that forward ultimately for action in the form of a provisional or conditional ordinance,” Hindoien said. “So that if the vote comes down the other direction so to speak, that we've got a framework in place immediately.”

Ballot Initiative 190, legalizing recreational marijuana for those 21 and older, passed statewide in Montana and by a majority with 54% in support and 46% against in Cascade County in 2020. The Legislature then passed HB 701 which outlined the specific regulations surrounding adult use of marijuana. The legislation went into effect Jan. 1.

Mayor Bob Kelly said this reminded him of another contentious issue within the community: urban chickens. He said that the city had to prepare the rules surrounding allowing chickens within the city in the event citizens voted in favor of allowing them. He said working on the rules surrounding adult-use marijuana sales would follow a parallel track to that of chickens, which are still prohibited within city limits.

Great Falls is also looking to Billings, which took a vote on this issue last year. Billings voted not to permit adult-use marijuana sales within city limits. Hindoien said that the city did not address other permissible activities like growing and cultivating, so the only activity banned was sales. Hindoien confirmed that this was an intentional choice by the city.

Local counselor Julie Bass, who spoke in favor of putting this issue to a vote before both city and county commissions, told the Tribune that the language of the petition that she is helping to orchestrate to ban adult-use sales at the county level would be sure to include language banning all the permissible activities like growing and cultivating.

Cascade County Attorney Josh Racki recently released a legal opinion that the county commission did not have the power to put the issue to a vote without collecting signatures. The petition would need to be signed by at least 15% of the local government's qualified electors to require an election, full requirements are outlined in the Montana Code Annotated.

Potential municipal judge addition

Following recommendations outlined by the Crime Task Force, the city is looking at the potential of adding another municipal judge to help with the uptick in cases at the city level.

“Right now it's like drinking through a fire hose,” Judge Steve Bolstad told the Tribune.

The 2021 Legislature passed SB127, requiring all municipal judges be elected officials and dismantling the ability for the city to hire a part-time assistant judge, which Great Falls had done previously.

Hindoien explained that the city will need to go to the voters to request a change in the charter’s language to permit two municipal judges, as the language currently permits one.

He said this would be in tandem with the commission passing an ordinance to make the amendment to the charter effective Jan. 1, 2023, where after the city commission would appoint a judge to fill the spot before the next election.

He compared the appointment process to how the Legislature creates judicial positions.

“They don't do it every time, and part of it's a stagger and depending on the need, but the Legislature has taken action to both create the new judicial position and direct that it'd be filled by appointment pending the next election.”

In response to a question over what he would do if electors chose not to add an additional judge, Bolstad initially told the Tribune that he would consider leaving his position, citing fatigue from the workload.

Bolstad emailed the Tribune Wednesday to clarify that although he is burned out, “the prospect of another judge and the support of the Commission has given me some hope.”

“I have done this job for seven years and have thought all along that the numbers would get manageable. There was a lull during COVID, but since it has been crazy,” he said in the email. “I would not quit if the electors did not approve the language. I love my job and I care about the people that I see every day. I do not want to lose that care or become jaded.”

This article originally appeared on Great Falls Tribune: Great Falls ballot timeline: City adult-use marijuana sales, new judge