EDITORIAL: Marijuana donation reveals flaws in Ontario systems

Supporters of the Ontario splash pad park review the site earlier this year. (The Enterprise/file)

A project to keep kids happy in the summer has turned into an adult mess in Ontario. Before emotions run any hotter, the Ontario City Council needs to play diplomat Thursday. Ducking the issue would only make matters worse.

It’s hard to imagine how a donation for a good project can be as fouled up as one made for Ontario’s splash pad. Volunteers persuaded the city to build the new park. They backed up their pitch by rounding up local donations toward the cost. Individuals gave. And local businesses such as Treasure Valley Steel and institutions such as the foundation at Saint Alphonsus Medical Center wrote checks, too.

And then came marijuana money. Marty Justus, a local real estate agent and city councilor, reached out to Hotbox Farms about donating. Hotbox is licensed to sell marijuana in Huntington and wants to be a seller in Ontario. Its owners pledged $25,000 for the Ontario project.

Those with Friends of the Aquatic Center thought the money was coming personally from the Hotbox owners. The chairwoman says the city councilor gave her that impression. But Steve Meland, one of the Hotbox owners, wanted the donation to be publicly credited to his marijuana company. The aquatic center friends agreed, and listed Hotbox at its groundbreaking ceremony.

Then, behind the scenes, unease spread. Some in the community thought it was a lousy idea to have a marijuana business helping host a children’s park. Justus made matters even worse, and has created a cloud of doubt about the whole thing.

He took $25,000 in cash at his business as a donation for the park instead of sending Hotbox to City Hall to turn over the money. Then, according to his own records, he ran the money through his firm’s rental trust account – in the name of yet another Meland business and not Hotbox.

When some aquatic supporters grew restive about the money, Justus again was less than helpful. He counseled the group to just keep quiet and take the money. He said Hotbox “operated in good faith.” He didn’t disclose in emailing that advice that Meland was a client of his. That detail seems vital to assess Justus’s comments. Now, it comes out that Justus also had a role in getting Meland on the city’s marijuana study committee – the one that recently recommended how marijuana businesses should operate in Ontario if they become legal.

So, what now?

The city council shouldn’t reject the donation. We understand the angst of those supporting the splash park about somehow being tied to the pot business. That concern is overstated. Even if “Hotbox Farms” is listed as the donor, no 8-year-old sitting under a water umbrella is going to wonder for a second about that donor. With no logo, the business name is just another bunch of words.

The concern with the Hotbox name seems belated. The money was given in February and park supporters knew the real source then. The time to kick back the money was the moment Meland insisted his company name, not his own, be given the public credit. No, the money is in and committed. Meland’s motives aside, Hotbox is a legal business and that should suffice.

Other donors who are thinking of reversing their generosity should check that impulse. It’s unlikely anyone will consider donors to be tacit supporters of the marijuana business by leaving their donations for the park in the till. The community is more likely to look at all donors as helping give local kids a wonderful gift. The park should not be a proxie for the building debate over local marijuana.

Meantime, fixes are needed.

One step that would have eliminated some of the smell of this deal is for the city to require that any donation for a city-run project be made directly to the city. Period. Money that is going for public projects ought to go straight to the government treasury, not elsewhere.

Second, Justus has to step aside from this park. He’s confused these matters because of his multiple roles – paid contractor for a marijuana entrepreneur, a city councilor and now, a candidate for mayor. He should excuse himself from the project entirely. Otherwise, questions linger about who he is serving.

What’s needed now is for everyone to check their emotions and their politics. The community needs to get back to the primary focus – delivering an amazing project for our kids. The city council needs to act clearly and immediately Thursday to settle this splash of scandal. – LZ