Warren City Council approves hiring of new attorney for cannabis lawsuits | Local News

Warren City Council voted unanimously to approve moving to the appeals process for litigation involving lawsuits filed against the City of Warren by 31 companies seeking marijuana licenses.

At the same special meeting of the Warren City Council Dec. 30, council also voted unanimously to hire attorney Robert Huth of the Kirk, Huth, Lange & Badalamenti law firm to act as appellate counsel representing the city. Huth would replace attorney Andrea Pike of Rosati, Schultz, Joppich & Amtsbuechler, who represented the city up until the appeal process.

District Five Councilman Eddie Kabacinski was not present at the meeting.

Council President Patrick Green verified that Warren City Attorney Ethan Vinson and Warren City Council special attorney Jeffrey Schrolder of Plunkett Cooney both recommended going through the appeals process. Vinson’s recommendation was to retain Pike as appellate counsel, which he says was also the recommendation of Argonaut, the city’s liability insurance company.

“Our insurance company has already told us they would frown upon a change,” said Vinson. “Under the policy, they have the right to make those decisions.”

In November, the council voted 5-2 not to accept a proposed settlement for the lawsuits that, according to Pike, would have waived all claims against the city by the plaintiffs. The 11 lawsuits filed by potential licensees as well as seven cross complaints, a civil lawsuit and two administrative appeals would have been dismissed with prejudice. The council’s vote to deny the consent agreement all but ensured the cases were headed to the appellate court.

Council Secretary Mindy Moore said she received phone calls from City Controller Richard Fox and Human Resources Director George Dimas in support of retaining Pike to handle the appeals process for the marijuana lawsuits.

Moore said she told them there was no support for Pike on city council and that Pike’s previous approval to represent the city in circuit court was contingent upon council receiving a letter of engagement which was never received. Moore said she believed Huth could work with both the city council and the administration and that he would have no difficulty “getting up to speed” on the lawsuits.

“The relationship between the two branches of government have been strained and I think Mr. Huth could work with both sides,” said Moore.

Huth’s recommendation came from the Legal Affairs Subcommittee, over which Green and Moore preside. The Legal Affairs Subcommittee held a public Zoom meeting in December to announce its recommendation of Huth for appellate counsel.

“This is an outstanding choice,” said District One Councilman Ron Papandrea. “Andrea Pike did her best and is a good attorney, but she thought her only obligation was to communicate with the mayor. There is still a chance we could settle this and I think Mr. Huth’s personal relationships with some of the people involved with this case might be a reason he might be able to settle this case.”

Councilwoman Angela Rogensues asked if Huth would be required to sign any type of conflict of interest statement due to his being on the Advisory Board of Directors for the Macomb Cannabis Alliance, which is part of the Southeast Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

Dennis Bostick and Tom Lauzon also sit on the board of the Macomb Cannabis Alliance and are affiliated with plaintiffs involved in the litigation against the city over the issuance of medical marijuana licenses. Lauzon is affiliated with LivWell LLC and Bostick with DKB2 LLC, according to the State of Michigan Licensing and Regulatory Affairs report on state marijuana licensing.

Moore indicated she would “strongly suggest” to Huth that he disengage himself from the Cannabis Alliance. Rogensues said she would like to see something in writing from Huth concerning possible conflicts of interest.

“I just think that anytime folks have ties it is important to investigate those ties whether or not they pose a conflict or interest or not,” said Rogensues. “We should be going above and beyond to make sure people representing the city have as much transparency as possible.”

Rogensues said the licensing process under the previous city council and its marijuana subcommittee has been scrutinized, questioned and criticized and she believes complete transparency will avoid similar issues moving forward.

“I will follow up to make sure that there is something in writing saying there is not a conflict of interest between Mr. Huth and the plaintiffs in the current lawsuits,” said Rogensues.

The Southeast Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which is led by John Johnson, filed a recall petition for Kabacinski last week, which made Moore question Huth’s choice to be involved with the organization. Johnson cited Kabacinski’s vote against the marijuana lawsuit settlement as the reason for the recall but as of yet, no recall petitions have been filed against other members of council who voted against the consent agreement.

“I don’t think that group is what it appears to be and we don’t need a group like that going after council,” said Moore.

Mayor James Fouts said he respects Huth and called him a good and qualified attorney. But he would prefer Pike handle the appeals for the city and said he plans to veto the council’s decision, even though he knows it will likely be overridden.

“Andrea Pike is the most qualified,” said Fouts. “She is extremely intelligent and she has been on this issue since day one. She is a good writer, a good thinker, and an excellent attorney. It is clear to me this is just retaliation against Andrea because she is not afraid to speak out. You don’t switch attorneys in the midst of an appeal. I do not have anything against Mr. Huth, but in this case I think Andrea Pike is the best choice.”

Huth represented Fouts and then Public Service Director Richard Sabaugh in 2017 in a campaign finance lawsuit and represented city clerk Sonja Buffa in 2019 in a case regarding term limits for city council candidates.

Vinson, who spoke during audience participation at the meeting, said he likes and respects Huth and has worked with him many times in the past, but is hesitant to switch attorneys at this stage of the game.

“I am uncomfortable with anyone at this point stepping in, considering the amount of work that has gone into this case,” said Vinson.

Pike said she is not clear if the hiring of Huth was in retaliation to any actions she may have taken during the course of litigation but called the timing of the council’s actions “curious.” Pike filed a motion for discovery on behalf of the city in an effort to find out who leaked information about the proposed settlement and consent agreement to the media. Circuit Court Judge Carl Marlinga denied the motion to compel Plunkett Cooney to reveal information related to the confidential agreement.

“The only thing they did tonight was to approve Rob Huth to handle the appeal, but there is still a circuit court case, so it is not clear how things are going to move forward with that,” said Pike. “I don’t know if I am really off the case or not.”

Pike said intervenors DNVK4 LLC were moved to a separate lawsuit and that there are four cross claims by seven parties and other intervenors that will become part of this lawsuit in Macomb County Circuit Court. The case has been reopened, but no complaint has been filed yet.

“There is a status conference for this case on January 12 and I am not sure if it is going to be me who appears on behalf of the city or not,” said Pike.

Vinson said he believes Pike will continue to represent the city at the circuit court level.

Pike and Vinson both said it is somewhat unusual to change law firms at this point in litigation. While it is common for the appellate department of the same law firm to handle the appeals, it is less common for the appeal process to be taken over by a completely different firm.

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