Roselle Councilwoman Cynthia Johnson is taking a stand against potential influence in the approval process for cannabis businesses in the borough.
Johnson, who is running for reelection, is proposing a measure that would prohibit marijuana business applicants from making donations to the borough’s recreation fund before obtaining municipal approval, citing concerns about potentially corrupt pay-to-play influence.
Under state law, cannabis businesses must receive approval from both the Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC) and local municipalities. While the CRC establishes general rules, municipalities have the flexibility to develop their own systems for approval and oversight.
This has led to a debate, with proponents arguing for tailored applications to suit local needs and critics expressing concerns about favoritism towards well-connected companies.
Johnson believes that allowing cannabis applicants to donate to the borough’s recreation fund may create a pay-to-play situation, where companies contribute campaign donations in exchange for preferential treatment when it comes to contracts.
Over the years, state and local laws have been enacted to prevent such practices but in many ways, a series of US Supreme Court decisions have virtually legalized bribery.
The current political landscape in Union County and Roselle adds further significance to this issue.
In the mayoral election, former assemblyman Jamel Holley, who played a role in cannabis legislation, is running against incumbent Mayor Donald Shaw, who was convicted of selling heroin in New York and served time in the Rikers Island prison facility.
Johnson’s opponent, Delia Ware-Tibbs, is also vying for councilwoman. Senate President Nicholas Scutari, one of the key architects of the cannabis bill, is seeking re-election.
Johnson raised specific concerns about donations made by a cannabis company called Joyleaf to the recreation department for an initiative called Women on the Move, which is involved with entities controlled by Roselle Council President Denise Wilkerson.
An ordinance banning these donations is necessary to maintain transparency and fairness in the approval process, according to Johnson.
Shaw and Wilkerson defended the application process, asserting its openness, fairness, and compliance with the law.
Wilkerson claimed that Women on the Move is a volunteer group supporting the development of young women and girls, with fundraising efforts to cover associated costs, but she has been less than transparent in financial matters. Wilkerson has been accused of using municipal coffers like a check cashing service, through which she has laundered funds for use by unaccountable non-profit groups.
Johnson’s proposal has found support from Roselle planning board member Sylvia Turnage.
Turnage emphasizes the need for safeguards to ensure that no applicant feels pressured to make donations to elected officials, thereby avoiding the perception that it could facilitate the approval process.
As the debate rages, the potential ban on donations from cannabis businesses probably hinges on the outcome of the Democratic primary election in Roselle, where Shaw and Holley are locked in a race that could be decided by only a dozen votes.