A coffee shop/pot cafe in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Don't expect these to be popping up all over Orange County, regardless of whether voters pass Proposition 19. (Photo credit: Paul Ames/Global Post)

After getting an earful from angry residents, Santa Ana council members backed away this week from proposed measures on pot shops and city charter changes they had planned to place on the November ballot.

Residents showed up in force to Tuesday’s meeting to protest the city’s current proliferation of unregulated pot shops, as well as the proposed charter changes, which would remove certain campaign contribution limits.

Many of the commenters criticized how the city has allowed pot shops to operate near schools, despite a city-wide ban on dispensaries.

“It’s a shame that we cannot [enforce] something that’s been on the books since 2007,” said Aracely Robles, one of nearly 40 commenters on the marijuana issue alone.

The outpouring of frustration had an impact.

Council members ended up scrapping the pot shop ban measure, in favor of emphasizing another council-backed ballot measure to regulate pot shops and heavily tax them to fund enforcement efforts.

At the urging of Martinez, the council also approved $500,000 to start a task force to go after pot shops near schools and neighborhoods. The vote was 5-1, with Councilman David Benavides opposing and Mayor Miguel Pulido absent.

“We need to shut those down,” said Martinez.

The funds could come from some of the extra $1.5 million per year the city is expecting from renegotiating their contract to house U.S. Marshals detainees in the city jail.

For the charter change proposal, residents criticized the council for trying to increase their pay and remove current limits when it comes to council members voting on issues affecting campaign contributors.

“This is a blatant attempt by some up here to further legalize and legitimize their pay to play politics,” said Matthew Southgate, a local artist and activist.

The lifting of certain campaign finance limits also didn’t sit well with Thomas Gordon, a longtime city activist, who pointed to the council majority’s push in recent years for a more ethical city government.

Those charter changes “kinda seems like a conflict with the whole ethics thing,” said Gordon, who sits on the Orange County Republican Central Committee.

Council members voted unanimously to not place the charter change measure on the ballot.

Martinez said she would be bringing back an element of the charter changes – removing civil service protections for the police chief – at the next council meeting.

In another matter, some council members showed support for eventually transforming their jobs from part time to full time positions.

“I’m supportive of a full time mayor and city council. We’re a big enough city,” said Martinez. Also showing support for that idea were Mayor Miguel Puludo and Councilman Vince Sarmiento.

Mayor Pro Tem Sal Tinajero disagreed, saying there’s “significant value” to having people with other full-time professions – such as with schools, real estate, human resources and law – on the council.

But what dominated the meeting, by far, was the issue of pot shops.

Resident Monica Contreras told council members that a shop is just a few feet away from where she trains parents and children through a KidWorks program. A patron recently walked out of the shop while smoking, she added.

The issue also drew concern from a Santa Ana Unified school board member Ceci Iglesias.

About 80 percent of expulsions at the district, and most suspensions, are for marijuana possession, Iglesias said.

When the pot shops are “so close to our schools, it just makes no sense,” she said. “It breaks my heart.”

Other commenters spoke of the need for people with illnesses to obtain marijuana. “We want access to be safe for sick people,” said Huntington Beach resident John Grace.

The residents’ frustrations struck a chord with Martinez, who said many of the shops are “selling to young kids.”

“I’m very disturbed that we have not done anything,” said Martinez, pointing out that the location of 30 to 40 pot shops in Santa Ana can easily be found by checking the Weedmaps mobile phone app.

“Where has our police department been? Where has our code enforcement been?” she asked.

Sarmiento, on the other hand, said the city has in fact “made a valiant effort” to shut down pot shops.

“I think that to say that there hasn’t been any enforcement…is completely unfair,” said Sarmiento.

Stepping up enforcement, he claimed, would require the city to take money away from community services like libraries, parks and infrastructure projects.

“If we want to try the ban again” and enforce it, “then look, we’re going to have to carve out the after school programs for youth,” said Sarmiento. “We don’t have endless revenues in the city.”

Tinajero suggested that the lack of enforcement was the result of budget cuts the city had to endure a couple years ago in order to avoid bankruptcy.

Going after the pot shops would cost “millions and millions of dollars,” said City Manager David Cavazos. “You need a vice squad” with “eight members, seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”

City Attorney Sonia Carvalho noted that state law prohibits pot shops from being located within 600 feet of a school, and that her office has been – and will continue to – file lawsuits seeking to shut down those shops.

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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