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Despite Risk, City Goes Ahead With Legal Action

PFlynn

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Ontario - Even as Ontario City Council members explained Wednesday why they felt it was necessary to approve a move to file a civil complaint against a local merchant, the owner of the business in question said she may file a counter suit.

The city is preparing to file a civil complaint in Malheur County Circuit Court to force the Ontario business Old School to operate within the Oregon Revised Statutes ( ORS ). The city asserts Old School is a drug paraphernalia shop and that the owner, Victoria Miller, sold, delivered and possessed with intent to sell numerous products constituting drug paraphernalia.

Miller, though, said she will talk to her attorney about filing a $10 million counter suit against the city.

City Council members admitted they are well aware the city could be at some financial risk regarding the complaint against Old School.

Mayor Joe Dominick, though, said risk is worth taking.

"We need to send a message that it is unacceptable in this community to sell drug paraphernalia under the guise of a legitimate business," he said. "As far as the community as a whole, I don't believe the citizens of Ontario want a business that sells drug paraphernalia."

As to what constitutes drug paraphernalia, Dominick said, he will rely on the expertise of the city's law enforcement officers. The City Council members who spoke with the Argus Observer Wednesday said their decision was based heavily, if not entirely, on Ontario Police Chief Mike Kee's evidence about Old School delivered in three separate City Council executive sessions.

None of them, in fact, ever visited the shop to see for themselves what was being sold there. Ontario City Councilman Dan Cummings said doing so might have been considered the kind of contact that would render them unable to vote on the issue.

"My main reason ( for voting for the suit ) is the recommendation from Chief Kee that we're trying to clean up the community," he said.

He said recommendations from Malheur County District Attorney Dan Norris and City Attorney Larry Sullivan also convinced him the suit needed to be filed.

"I've seen too much real damage done to society from drugs," Cummings said.

He said he understood anything can happen in court, but the suit is worth the financial risk to the city.

"What's a kid's life worth?" he said.

Ontario City Councilman John Gaskill called it a calculated risk but said Ontario is a different type of community from most in Oregon, with its own values.

"I just feel we don't need this here," City Councilman Bruce Tuttle said. "If you took a straw poll around town, of business people, teachers, the clergy, there would not be many in favor of a drug paraphernalia shop in town."

A big problem, Tuttle said, is that Miller's advertising brings many people over from Idaho to buy drug paraphernalia here because a lot of it is illegal in Idaho. He said when Kee and Norris came to the council with the facts, "we said just go ahead and do it."

Sullivan said a large percentage of what is sold in Old School is attractive to those who use illegal drugs. The goal of the lawsuit, he said, is to get Miller to stop selling those types of items.

When the City Council decided it was important for the city to do something about the problem, Sullivan said, he felt as the city attorney he should assist in the case. He said he volunteered his services but will be compensated out of the settlement if the city prevails in court.

Kee said one of the reasons for investigating Old School was complaints from other downtown merchants about the activity there. Jim Griffith, president of the Downtown Ontario Business Association, said he did not recall it being an issue raised in meetings but said his group is focused on downtown development right now, and the current members do not complain to the association about what other merchants might be doing.

The City Council members might be surprised to find that Miller agrees with them about the use of illegal drugs.

"I don't necessarily condone marijuana because I've seen the effects marijuana has on people," she said.

In another, related twist to the story, Darrell Tennant, the owner of New Vizions - a downtown business that sells some of the same items as Old School - said he has sought advice from his attorney about the Old School legal action, in case he becomes the city's next target. He said the city closed him down previously because he did not have sidewalks or enough greenery around his store.

To those who wonder what else a glass hookah could possibly be used for, Tennant said a single stage water pipe removes 50 percent of the carcinogens from tobacco, and a multi-stage can remove 70 percent. Such devices can cut down on the danger of cancer from smoking, he said. His shop also sells flavored tobacco from Egypt that customers like to use in the pipes he sells.

Tennant admits to being an advocate of the health benefits of medical marijuana and said he knows three of the attorneys who wrote Oregon's medical marijuana law. He said some of his customers do use marijuana for legal medical purposes, but that he cannot legally ask them for proof of their registered status just to sell them a water pipe. Like Miller, Tennant said he checks all customers for identification to make sure no one under 18 gets in his store.

Source: Argus Observer (OR)
Copyright: 2007 Ontario Argus Observer
Contact: editor@argusobserver.com
Website: The Argus Observer | Online - Front
 
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