North Branch council snuffs out vape shop (again)

The North Branch City Council has once again been burned by the shenanigans of the vape store formerly known as Cloud X Vapes, now known as MN Tobacco and Vape; to paraphrase the classic song by The Who, they won’t get fooled again.

Back in June 2021, the shop, which was named Cloud X Vapes at the time, had its tobacco license revoked due to repeated violations of selling to minors, among other irregularities involving the owners. The council upheld that decision at their next meeting despite the pleas of the “owner” — at least as far as who was listed on the tobacco license application was concerned — to allow the business to continue.

One month later, an attempt to “sell” the business to another owner was thwarted by the council after background checks of the would-be new owner revealed he was, in fact, related to the original owners of the business, among other irregularities. Yet another month later, a new potential owner of the business presented himself, however, this time the council could find no legal reasons to deny the application of Jacob Willenbring, despite the fact he was a former employee of Cloud X.

At the same time as they approved Willenbring’s license application, they cautioned him that they would be closely watching the business, which Willenbring responded with “go for it.”

“I’m going to do everything in my power to ensure every one of those compliance checks passes,” Willenbring told the council at that time.

Additionally, Willenbring promised the council he wouldn’t hire any other Cloud X employees. Those promises went up in smoke just two months later.

During the Nov. 9 council meeting North Branch Police Chief Dan Meyer informed the council that not only did his office receive a complaint from a parent who said their 17-year-old minor had been sold tobacco, but it turns out the employee who made the sale was a former Cloud X employee.

Meyer said a conversation with that employee also revealed she wasn’t fully trained in the laws regarding the sale of tobacco, and that the employees are not regularly checking IDs.

 Meyer told the council that based on city code, the council could impose a fine of $100 to the employee and $200 to the licensee for a first offense of an underage sale; the council could revoke the store’s tobacco license and refuse to approve one for 2022, which was his recommendation.

Jazmyn Fiel, who was the employee in question, spoke to the council in regards to this incident. Fiel said that she does regularly check IDs, except when they are customers she has come to recognize as regulars. In this instance, she said the store was very busy and that “it slipped my mind, and I didn’t ask for it because he comes in frequently.”

Fiel added she had previously asked for this person’s ID, however, it turned out to be fake.

While appreciating Fiel somewhat owning up to her mistake before the council, the council wasn’t sympathetic with her explanation.

“At no point am I surprised to see this organization has a violation,” said Councilmember Amanda Darwin. “We expected this in August. Unfortunately we had no legal basis to deny the license. We knew we were being lied to then, and we have proof now. We were told no Cloud X Vapes employees would be hired, and here you are now.”

“Four months ago, we were in the same position (with the previous owners) and did the owners show up?” Councilmember Patrick Meacham asked rhetorically. “It’s a history of throwing other people under the bus and not taking responsibility. And coming to the council and lying to our faces and lying to the chief.”

“I wish Jacob had shown up,” said Mayor Jim Swenson. “He was very open the last time. And this time, the chief has contacted him, he’s phoned with him, he’s emailed him, and he has not received a response back. 

“He stood right up there before and told us he was going to take care of his employees. He was going to train his employees and this was never going to happen again. So as Councilmember Meacham said, he’s lied to us.”

The motion to revoke MN Tobacco and Vape’s tobacco license and not to issue a new one in 2022 passed unanimously.

Odds and ends

In other action, the council:

Was informed by Finance Director Joe Starks that putting in new technology in the council chambers resulted in a $20,000 savings to the 2022 budget. Starks asked the council what they wished to do with the extra money. Some options include applying it to lower the 2022 levy — which would only reduce the levy by less than a half percent — applying it to the equipment replacement fund, saving it for any future emergency needs, or making an additional purchase for city hall such as a generator. Any combination of those options could also be considered.

After discussion, the council approved putting $10,000 towards the equipment fund, and $10,000 towards any possible future unexpected expenses.

Approved the body-worn-camera policy for the police department. 

Approved setting up a survey to ask all residents how they use city parks, and what they envision the future of the parks — Central Park in particular. The survey will be used when the council ultimately decides if they will allow a veterans memorial to be placed at Central Park. The council also approved setting up an information gathering meeting with anyone interested regarding the Veterans Memorial, which will be held on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Lakes Region’s meeting room.

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