Marijuana, municipal judge questions likely going to November ballot

Update 12 p.m. May 25

The November ballot will likely include several questions for city voters on the Municipal Court and marijuana.

Earlier this spring, City Commissioners voted to have staff develop language for the ballot on whether marijuana businesses should be allowed in the city limits. They are currently prohibited.

During their May 17 work session, City Attorney Jeff Hindoien gave commissioners a basic overview of the timeline to get language to the ballot and asked them to begin considering how broad they wanted to address marijuana related businesses within the city limits.

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He said that staff has begun developing a framework that would address regulations for marijuana businesses in the city, but it will depend on how broad commissioners want it to be. For example, he asked them to consider whether they want to address only adult use recreational dispensaries, or whether to address medical marijuana dispensaries, cultivation, growing, testing or other related uses.

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The City of Billings recently sent the question to voters but only addressed recreational dispensaries, which voters chose to prohibit within the city limits, Hindoien said.

Hindoien said staff would schedule the topic for additional work sessions this spring and summer for commissioners to consider and give direction as to what they want that regulatory framework to look like.

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To meet deadlines for the ballot, they’ll need to have a public hearing on sending the issue to the ballot by late July or early August, he said.

Separately, residents asked the County Commission to send the marijuana question to the ballot as well.

Commissioners said earlier this month that they are unable to decide themselves to send the question to the ballot and that voters must petition to get the issue on the ballot.

According to the Cascade County attorney’s office, a petition needs 15 percent of signatures of the number of people who voted in the last federal election. That equates to 7,569 signatures from actively registered voters to get the marijuana question on the ballot, according to the county elections office.

Rina Moore, the county elections official, said her office has not seen a petition presented, which is the first step of the process. Once a petition is approved, they have 60 days to collect the necessary signatures under state law.

If enough valid signatures are collected, county commissioners have to approve a resolution to put the issue on the ballot 85 days before the election, according to the county elections office.

City Commissioners will also be asked to consider sending charter amendments to the ballot to expand the Municipal Court.

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For the last few years, the city has taken steps in the hopes of adding a part-time judge to ease the case load under Municipal Court Judge Steve Bolstad. The court only has one elected judge presently, which is how the court is established under the city charter and city code.

Bolstad had planned to hire an assistant part-time judge and the city had budgeted for the additional staff, but during the last session, the Montana Legislature changed the law to require that all municipal judges be elected, Hindoien said.

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To add a judge under that new state law also requires updates to the city’s charter and code.

Charter amendments require approval by the voters.

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Hindoien said the plan is to bring amendments to the commission and ordinance language that, if approved, would be effective Jan. 1, 2023 so the city could add a new, part-time judge as early as January and budget accordingly.

Those updates will likely have a first reading for the ordinance in late June or early July and a hearing on sending the changes to the ballot by late July or early August, Hindoien said.