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Phoenix Paid Firefighters Union Boss $68K for Plan to Tax Medical Pot Businesses

The city of Phoenix paid more than $68,000 for the head of the firefighters' association to work on a medical marijuana dispensary tax intended to fund police and fire while he served as chief of staff to interim Mayor Thelda Williams, Phoenix New Times has learned.

A proposal to fund police and fire ended up being led by the head of the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona from within the mayor's office. Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona President Bryan Jeffries worked in the mayor's office for less than five months, but the city paid him a salary that was close to the pay ceiling for the position.

Jeffries resigned as chief of staff just a few weeks after the proposed medical marijuana tax failed unanimously in a vote of the Phoenix City Council on October 2.

The proposal from the mayor would have levied taxes in the realm of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, or more, on each medical marijuana retail location and cultivation site.

The nature of the medical marijuana occupational licensing tax was more than a little incestuous, metaphorically speaking. Because Jeffries was working for the city, a proposal to fund city police and fire ended up being led by the head of a firefighters union from within the mayor's office.

A captain in the Mesa Fire and Medical Department, Jeffries worked in the Phoenix mayor's office from June until he resigned unexpectedly on October 15.

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According to public records obtained by New Times, the city set Jeffries' base annual salary at $125,721.60, near the top of the salary range for a Phoenix chief of staff. That salary was more than Jeffries' base salary of $88,760 as a Mesa city employee, so the City of Phoenix relied on a contract with a temporary staffing agency to cover the difference of $36,961.60.

On June 27, the Phoenix City Council approved an "executive on loan" item that allowed Phoenix to reimburse Mesa for Jeffries' time.

By the time he left the mayor's office in October, the city had paid a total of $68,118.40 to Jeffries, according to information obtained by New Times through a records request.

A spokesperson for Williams, Raquel Estupinan, acknowledged that Phoenix brought Jeffries to work on the failed marijuana tax, among other things.

"Bryan was brought on primarily to work on special projects, including public safety resources and the medical marijuana proposal," Estupinan wrote in an email. "The marijuana proposal is not moving forward and, as a result, Bryan has chosen to return to his job as captain in the Mesa Fire Department."

When asked about other projects that Jeffries worked on besides the marijuana tax, Estupinan said, "Jeffries helped get the conversation started on a potential bond program for 2019 for public safety resources. He also contributed to advising the mayor on a number of issues."

However, Williams already had a chief of staff during this period, making it seem more likely that Jeffries' sole purpose was to shepherd a marijuana tax through the City Council.

Jeffries reportedly served in a co-chief-of-staff role alongside Seth Scott, the chief of staff to former mayor Greg Stanton. Scott, who makes $137,925 per year, stayed on in the mayor's office after Williams was selected by her City Council peers to be interim mayor when Stanton resigned to run for Congress on May 29.

Other recent mayors have relied on co-chiefs of staff from time to time, Estupinan said, including Stanton and former mayor Phil Gordon.

As it happens, Jeffries is a former Phoenix City Council member. He briefly represented District 2 after he was appointed in 2011 to replace another council member who resigned, and ran unsuccessfully to hold the position, losing to Councilman Jim Waring. 

New Times contacted Jeffries for comment and later received an email from local public relations and consulting operative David Leibowitz, who said that he was responding on behalf of Jeffries. Leibowitz explained that he is more well-versed in dealing with the media than the union president and ex-politician, whom he described as a friend.

He maintained that Jeffries did not arrive at the city with a specific agenda of taxing medical marijuana.

"Everything he did was an attempt to improve public safety in the city of Phoenix," Leibowitz said.

In spite of the unexpected departure of Jeffries from the mayor's office, Leibowitz would not say that Williams fired Jeffries or asked him to resign. "My understanding is it was a mutual thing," Leibowitz said, adding, "Clearly, what happened with medical marijuana did not go as intended."

The tax proposal seemed like a stealth mission. Unlike more minor items, the tax plan did not go through subcommittees or public discussion and instead materialized at the last minute to a shocked and outraged pot industry.

The first the public knew of it was when Williams placed the item on the October 2 City Council policy session agenda just a few days before the meeting, with marijuana operators feeling targeted. Yet Jeffries was researching the potential for a medical marijuana tax over a year ago in his role with the Professional Fire Fighters, he told the Arizona Republic .

Dispensary operators were outraged when they learned that the city was pursuing a massive new tax on their businesses, and citizens showed up en masse to speak out against the tax at the City Council.

In his presentation to the City Council at the meeting, Jeffries defended the proposal as a forward-thinking approach. "This is not an attempt to try to single out patients or to single out the need for marijuana. But it's simply the real-life impacts to public safety," he said at the meeting, referring to the city of Denver as an example.

Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, and Jeffries said that officials in Denver told him their city was dealing with consequences from marijuana legalization related to homelessness and public safety response times.

There's no evidence to suggest that similar problems are happening here. In a recommendation that Phoenix allow dispensaries across the city to remain open until 10 p.m. instead of the current 7 p.m. cutoff, city staff wrote, "Based on the numerous reviews of existing non-profit medical marijuana dispensaries, there are not significant public safety issues or detrimental effects from these establishments."

Nevertheless, the tax seemed to come out of nowhere.

Leibowitz said he didn't know about Jeffries working on a medical marijuana tax a long time before he showed up to work for Williams this summer.

"With the advent of medical marijuana and its growing popularity, I’m sure that is something that a lot of people are looking at, not just firefighters," he said. 

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