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Massachusetts Cannabis Commissioners Clash Over “Operational Changes”

“We don’t need an agency fighting with each other; let’s please let staff get back to work without further distraction or delay.”

Following some business as usual and even progress on a few agenda items, the May 23 meeting of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission spun out of control, with one member accusing others of making decisions about power distribution that have been a “divisive distraction to our agency.”

Specifically, Commissioner Kimberly Roy read a prepared statement asking, “I have questions for the acting chair [Ava Callender Concepcion] and for Commissioner [Bruce] Stebbins. Commissioner Stebbins, over the last 48 hours, have you been involved in a process to replace acting Executive Director Debbie Hilton-Creek?”

The contested proposal was to “direct Acting Executive Director Hilton-Creek to prioritize her Chief People Officer (CPO) hiring and employment duties until a new Executive Director (ED) is hired and onboarded,” and to “delegate the following responsibilities to the Commission’s Chiefs to effectuate that purpose: the General Counsel (GC) to oversee all legal and regulatory matters; the Chief of Investigations and Enforcement (CIE) to oversee all matters related to investigations/compliance, enforcement, and licensing matters …; the Chief Financial and Accounting Officer (CFAO) to oversee and lead in budget preparation … ; the Chief Technology and Innovation Officer (CTIO) to oversee all information technology, cybersecurity, and internal control planning; the Chief Research Officer (CRO) to oversee all research activities.”

In other words, a proposal to separate most interim ED duties from Hilton-Creek, who was appointed the acting role last October. Roy wasn’t having it though, and accused Stebbins and Concepcion of setting up a deal behind her back.

The commissioners went back and forth in May, with Concepcion especially weary about getting “into a conversation about personnel matters.” Since the motion was related to employment, there were concerns about violating open-meeting laws by inappropriately communicating between members, along with privacy concerns about discussing human resources in public.

“Anything else is not for this space,” the acting chair said. “I feel conflicted that I have to say that to a commissioner.”

The motion was voted on and rejected, one-to-two, with only Roy voting against it. Speaking after the pithy exchange, Hilton-Creek asked that the matter not be discussed any further during the open meeting. But there they were again, this Thursday, battling it out—this time with the addition of a fourth commissioner, Nurys Camargo, who was not present at the May meeting.

Anticipating that Concepcion was going to bring the same motion that was presented in May, Roy made the first move, speaking on behalf of Dr. Julie Johnson, the inaugural CCC chief of research. “I want to take this time now to exercise a point of personal privilege and read a letter into the record as it was requested of me by one of our chiefs,” Roy said. She continued, reading from Johnson’s letter:

I am writing to share staff input on the motion commissioners will consider today. Which appears to be another motion to interfere with the work of the commission and specifically the leadership of acting Executive Director Debbie Hilton-Creek.

Last October, I was proud when commissioners unanimously appointed a strong, intelligent, and deeply experienced woman to lead the CCC. I think we can all agree what a challenge it would be for anyone to be asked to hold two significant roles for such a long time while waiting for commissioners to complete a search for a permanent executive director. It is no secret that the internal working atmosphere at the commission has been referred to as toxic. 

Recent news reports have publicly exposed the fact that over many years, multiple women have experienced a workplace that is unsupportive and even unsafe. For the past eight months, I have watched the acting executive director make the hard but necessary changes to right this ship, finally bringing accountability and transparency to the commission. I have observed that Mrs. Hilton-Creek has attempted to imbue the commission with a new spirit of teamwork and kindness. In spite of that, some coworkers have not fully supported the important changes she is trying to affect, making her job even more difficult. With her steady and strong leadership, I can now get back to my job feeling safe and supported by a caring and active agency that pays attention to the needs of all employees. 

With only three to four months before a permanent executive director is appointed, I think the motion being presented today is a distraction and potentially a harmful one. I believe it will weaken and delay the important work that we all want to accomplish to support social equity and protect public health and create economic opportunity for thousands of citizens across Massachusetts. We all have jobs to do, and I think rather than undermining Debbie Hilton-Creek by creating silos of work without accountability and transparency, the CCC community needs to come together to support her and focus on the important work we all hope to achieve, as changes Debbie is trying to make to ensure a safe working environment take time and commitment, as well as the full support of the entire agency. We don’t need an agency fighting with each other; let’s please let staff get back to work without further distraction or delay.

With several more agenda items to go before the divisive proposal came up, acting Chair Concepcion thanked Dr. Johnson for the letter, saying, “I look forward to continuing to work together to get this right for all those who are concerned, both internally as well as externally.”

In her turn, Hilton-Creek didn’t specifically comment on the proposal to drastically change her duties and the workflow at the agency, but simply said: “We continue to take care of the commission regardless of what’s going on in the media. I don’t really pay much attention to what’s out there because I think we have a solid team here. I am committed to this mission and I will continue to be committed to this mission until the next [executive director is appointed].”

… More than five hours later into Thursday’s meeting, the motion on “CCC Key Priorities and Operational Changes” finally came up. In its defense, Concepcion said the intention isn’t to replace Hilton-Creek or anyone else. “Nothing changes for the vast majority of staff,” the acting chair said. “The main people who this will impact are the chiefs of the commission.”

Concepcion then noted the extraordinary number of unfilled positions at the agency—“more than 20”—and the toll that takes on everyone from staffers to commissioners. Some of those posts include HR manager, director of operations, and director of investigations.

Still adamant about the matter, Roy identified what she said were relevant sections of the Mass cannabis regulations, saying to Concepcion, “Your motion is troubling and invites six separate violations of the law across multiple statutes. The CCC has no authority to change the law, nor does it possess the authority to pick and choose which laws to follow and which to violate.”

A somewhat civil conversation ensued, with Commissioner Stebbins thanking Roy for raising her points, and lamenting the difficult situation they all face. “We’re merely asking her to direct her time and energy” to critical HR matters, Stebbins said, referring to Hilton-Creek’s actual role of chief people officer. “We have some tension here because we have people wearing two hats,” he said. Adding, “There’s a lot of confidence in the chiefs, there’s a lot of confidence in the team.”

Following a relatively short debate, CCC General Counsel Kristina Gasson gave the blessing for commissioners to vote, and the motion passed three-to-one, with only Roy voting against it.

The current drama echoes several exchanges from 2023, following “the delegation of staff work” during the parental leave of former Executive Director Shawn Collins last fall. After the move was called out by a group of five state lawmakers in a scathing public letter condemning commission behavior, and by the state Office of the Comptroller, Hilton-Creek explained during a meeting in February of this year:

The former Executive Director submitted a Key Contact Form to the Comptroller’s office designating the Chief Operating Officer (COO) as agency head during his leave of absence, even though this action was unnecessary as he was still actively employed by the Commission, and the COO had been duly authorized to perform agency financial functions since 2020. The Comptroller’s office notified the Commission that it was returning the filing as invalid since the Executive Director remained the duly appointed agency head pursuant to [Mass General Laws]. Upon review, the Comptroller’s Office notified the Commission that the previous Key Contact filing remained effective and that since the COO retained Department Head Signature Authorization and credit card designation, all Commission financial functions were valid and authorized during this period of time.