NWA editorial: Moral high ground?

Elected officials’ stance no substitute for voters’ decision

Posted: January 2, 2018 at 3 a.m.

Remember Kim Davis? She was the county clerk in Kentucky who created such a stir by refusing her legal responsibility to issue marriage certificates after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled same-sex partners had every bit as much right to navigate the bonds of matrimony as the men and women who had been doing it for ages.

Davis spent five days in jail after refusing a court order to issue marriage licences, all because she felt her personal theology trumped her duty as a publicly elected official.

What’s the point?

When voters have clearly spoken, it’s not up to an elected official to substitute his moral position for that of the electorate.

This wasn't a private business owner refusing to bake a cake. It was THE county official charged with providing the paperwork necessary before any marriage could be carried out in Rowan County, Ky. It's not that her personal convictions aren't important, but when it comes to performing the duty's of one's office, it's not a buffet from which the office holder gets to pick and choose.

Now, here in Northwest Arkansas, we've got at least one elected official who apparently stands ready to substitute his personal views of morality for those of the state's electorate. When it came time to consider a permit for a proposed marijuana cultivation facility in an unincorporated area near Lincoln, Justice of the Peace Robert Dennis was ready to stand his ground. He likened approval of the facility to selling one's "soul to the devil."

"I'm not struggling with this -- I'm totally against it. It's wrong," he said.

Except, it's not, at least from a legal perspective. In November 2016, 53 percent of Arkansas voters approved Issue No. 6, the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment, on the statewide ballot. It legalized a state system for the cultivation, distribution and possession of marijuana for patients who obtain a state-issued identification authorizing marijuana's use for treatment of certain ailments and diseases.

In Washington County, the vote was even more lopsided. Nearly 60 percent of voters approved.

The Washington County Planning Board on Oct. 5 approved a plan by a business called Native Flower to build a 4,160-square-foot work center alongside four 3,840-square-foot greenhouses in a rural area off Bush Road zoned at the county's least regulated level, which is for agriculture and residential use. Even at the Quorum Court, to which the Planning Board's decision was appealed, county officials generally agreed the proposal met all of the county's criteria.

But there's a reason such appeals are allowed to what is, at its core, a political body. The Quorum Court gets to consider a wide range of issues, including neighbors' concerns about traffic, crime, compatibility with surrounding properties, etc.

One justice of the peace said these newly legal cultivation facilities belong in an industrial park, not pastoral rural areas. Another was "offended" the applicant didn't even show up to answer questions about the proposal. In the end, the Quorum Court voted 11-3 against authorizing the facility operating at the proposed location.

But it was this talk of dancing with the devil that was out of place. We opposed the medical marijuana amendment in 2016. The voters of this state thought otherwise. Nobody elected justices of the peace in Washington County to substitute their judgment on an issue the voters so clearly decided.

"If you're hung up on Arkansas having medical marijuana, that ship sailed a long time ago," Justice of the Peace Eva Madison told her colleagues.

There are a wide range of issues to which elected representatives have to apply their own sense of right and wrong on behalf of the people who elected them, but not when the electorate has made their position so clear. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, for example, opposed the medical marijuana amendment in 2016. Once voters approved it, however, he set aside $3 million in state funds to begin the process of implementing the amendment's provisions. He understood a public official's responsibility to carry out legal responsibilities, especially those backed by voters.

The amendment authorize between four and eight cultivation facilities and the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission established the maximum of five for the entire state. So it's still an open question as to whether Native Flower or anyone else in Washington County will get a permit to operate such a facility.

If someone does, however, county officials better have a substantial defense for standing in the way of a cultivation facility's development. Dennis very well may be morally opposed to medical marijuana, but a justice of the peace doesn't get to thwart the public's will.

Commentary on 01/02/2018