Basalt Councilwoman Riffle ruffles feathers with email on marijuana

Jennifer Riffle

A Basalt councilwoman is under fire for violating the Colorado Open Meetings Law by sending an email to three other council members July 11 to lobby them on an issue going before the board the next evening.

Councilwoman Jennifer Riffle sent an email to Katie Schwoerer, Mark Kittle and Gary Tennenbaum to ask them to vote against a resolution directing the town staff to expand the areas in town where marijuana can be sold.

Her email asked them to consider several bullet points that she outlined to oppose changing marijuana rules.

“Keep it simple, keep the ordinance as is,” she wrote. “What does a Main St. dispensary message (sic) to our youth and families? How does this resonate with community perspective?”

Her email referred to the 3 Bears Building on Midland Avenue, owned by Norm and Laura Clasen. They were negotiating to sell the building to a buyer who was considering opening a recreational marijuana business.

Riffle’s bullet points included assumptions that turned out to be false. For example, she said a representative of the developer and owner of Willits Town Center is against marijuana businesses locating there. A representative said that’s not the case.

In addition, Riffle said the 3 Bears Building has an HVAC system that would have difficulty preventing the smell of marijuana from spreading to other parts of the building. The property manager refuted that.

Asked to recuse herself

Riffle’s email was discovered by David Schoenberger, who was working with the prospective buyer of the 3 Bears Building. He submitted a Colorado Open Records Act request seeking the emails of Riffle from April 5 to Aug. 12, according to town records.

Schoenberger confronted Riffle about her email to the other council members during public comment Tuesday night.

Norm Clasen also spoke on the issue during the council meeting.

“This email really caught me off guard,” he said, noting it violates the Colorado Open Meetings Law and Basalt Home Rule Charter.

The open meetings law requires all business between elected officials to be conducted in public.

Clasen asked Riffle to recuse herself from future votes on marijuana issues. The council is still in the process of defining where marijuana retailers can locate.

Lobbying effort failed

Clasen noted that when Riffle was elected in April, she spoke at her first meeting about the need for transparency in government. She didn’t practice what she preached, he said.

“Jenn, you should be ashamed of yourself for this,” Clasen said. He also contended her actions interfered with the potential sale of his building, though it wasn’t clear how.

Riffle’s lobbying failed. The council voted 5-2 on July 12 to consider expanding the zone districts where marijuana could be sold. Only Riffle and Schwoerer opposed the expansion.

Then, on Sept. 13, the council voted 4-0, in the first of two required actions, to expand the zoning districts where marijuana can be sold. Currently, it can only be sold in areas zoned industrial. The council voted to expand it to include commercial zones. Riffle voted to make the change.

However, the council also decided to keep buffers intact that prevent sales a certain distance from schools, daycare centers and parks. The existing buffers prohibit marijuana sales along most of Midland Avenue, including the 3 Bears Building.

The council’s second reading of the ordinance changing the zoning is scheduled later this month, tentatively for Oct. 18.

Riffle speaks on issues

Riffle declined Friday to say if she will recuse herself from voting on the issue. She said she will state her position when the issue comes before the board.

She said she has reached out to Clasen for a meeting this week. The “first step of civility” is to meet with him in private to discuss the issue, she said. She also has asked interim Basalt Town Manager Ron Miller to attend the meeting.

Riffle acknowledged she violated the Colorado Open Meetings Law, but said it was out of unfamiliarity with the rules rather than flaunting them. “I didn’t receive sufficient education and training,” Riffle said.

She said she asked former Town Manager Mike Scanlon to include information on council communications at a June retreat. The information wasn’t included. Riffle produced an email dated July 25, and sent to the entire council, asking that they take advantage of free counseling from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs on “Good Governance Practices” and “Good Process Practices.” She said she never received a response.

Riffle said she just recently became aware about the prohibition on emails to other council members.

She declined to respond to the apparent inaccurate statements in her lobbying email. She said she wasn’t going to go back and forth in the newspaper on that issue.