Skirmish over Highland Park’s marijuana ordinance leads to claims of corruption, misogyny, and bad government

The disputes came to a head when council members walked out of a meeting this week

click to enlarge Highland Park’s marijuana ordinance has prompted several lawsuits and disputes between city officials. - Cascade Creatives /
Cascade Creatives /
Highland Park’s marijuana ordinance has prompted several lawsuits and disputes between city officials.
Three new Highland Park City Council members who were elected to bring fresh ideas to the financially struggling city have found themselves stuck in a virtual loop of mayoral vetoes, internal pushback, and insults.

On Monday, they finally had enough and walked out of a council meeting, leaving the other two elected members without a quorum to proceed.

“This is crazy,” Councilman Khursheed Ash-Shafii, one of the three members who walked out, tells Metro Times. “You can’t make this shit up. Steven King is one of the most talented people in the world, and even he couldn’t make this up.”

Much of the conflict began when the trio tried to amend what they say is a problematic, unlawful cannabis ordinance that fails to ensure community benefits, gives sole authority to the clerk to dole out licenses, and exposes the city to costly litigation.

The ordinance led to several lawsuits against the city after the previous council passed it in 2020.

Mayor Glenda McDonald has vetoed every attempt by the council to amend the ordinance, and when council members tried to hire their own attorney, she vetoed that too.

Frustrated by what he considers an abuse of McDonald’s veto power, Councilman Ash-Shafii sent an email on May 11 to the city’s attorney requesting a legal opinion on the issue. Instead of getting a response from legal counsel, council President Jamal Thomas sent a series of condescending emails to Ash-Shafii, suggesting he and his colleagues weren’t smart enough to figure out their jobs.

Ash-Shafii says the emails were “insulting and degrading and disrespectful.”

Thomas also encouraged the city’s attorney not to respond to Ash-Shafii’s questions and suggested the matter should be hashed out in court — an unusual and potentially costly proposal for an impoverished city on the brink of bankruptcy.

“Its time to take these and other matters before a judge in open court,” Thomas wrote in a series of emails obtained by Metro Times. “I have retained my own legal representation, and await pending claims. Enough is enough.”

The internal squabbles couldn’t come at a worse time. The city of fewer than 9,000 residents faces a $19 million unpaid water bill to the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA). If the debt isn’t handled by the end of the month, the burden may fall on residents, whose property taxes could be tripled.

In another email, Thomas wrote to Ash-Shafii, “Congratulations on passing the 3rd grade. We all knew you could do it!”

Thomas also took aim at Councilwoman Kallela Martin, who proposed amending the cannabis ordinance. He suggested Martin didn’t understand municipal government enough to write the ordinance herself.

“How one can progress to authoring a legal ordinance in March, and take public office with no knowledge of what a parliamentarian is on January second of this year should be fleshed out in open court,” Thomas wrote.

Martin said the remark was sexist and unprofessional and asked Thomas for an apology. When he refused, she and the other two council members walked out of Monday’s meeting in protest.

“I want the same respect as a man, and I was taking a stand for any female who has either been silenced or couldn’t use her voice or couldn’t be heard,” Martin tells Metro Times. “That’s what I was doing. I deserve respect. There was a need to be heard.”

In an email to Metro Times, Thomas declined to comment and then wrote, “You are being used as a ‘cats paw’ sir. Sadly, you are being taken on the same fools errand that the other media interests have been mislead [sic] by.”

In a follow-up email, Thomas copied his personal attorney “so we can communicate freely and can all reach each other after you post your story.”

Meanwhile, the three council members are still waiting for a response from the city’s attorney. They contend the mayor is abusing her veto authority, making it impossible for them to fully execute their duties as the legislative branch. They also argue that the city charter only allows the mayor to veto ordinances and resolutions, not amendments or motions such as hiring of an outside attorney.

Robert Davis, a Highland Park activist, filed a lawsuit against the city earlier this month, arguing that the cannabis ordinance “is void and unenforceable because it was not enacted in accordance with the Michigan Zoning and Enabling Act,” he tells Metro Times.

Davis alleges the past council members “were set to benefit from the unlawful ordinance,” saying their campaigns were funded by prospective marijuana applicants.

He says the past council was “corrupt” and approved the ordinance without the required public hearings, and the Planning Commission failed to recommend the ordinance, which is required by state law.

“It quite obviously was a foolish process,” Davis says. “I applaud the three council members who are attempting to amend it so it can be done the correct way.”

Davis says he suspects Martin is obstructing the amendments because he’s part of a group that purchased the old Liberty School, which the marijuana ordinance designated as an area for cannabis businesses to open.

Despite the lawsuit, the city recently began accepting applications for cannabis businesses, which Davis says puts the city in additional legal peril.

Since the three council members can’t get a legal opinion on mayoral vetoes, Davis is considering filing a lawsuit against the city so a judge “can provide clear direction” on vetoes.

“The council president cannot stop the city attorney from providing legal advice to the rest of the council,” Davis says. “This nonsense has to stop. It’s petty, stupid politics.”

Martin says she wants to get past the confrontations so she can do her job.

“I really want Highland Park to move forward, and I don’t know why we’re at a standstill,” Martin says. “People are ready for change.”

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About The Author

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling is an award-winning investigative journalist who operated Motor City Muckraker, an online news site devoted to exposing abuses of power and holding public officials accountable. Neavling also hosted Muckraker Report on 910AM from September 2017 to July 2018. Before launching Motor City Muckraker,...
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