As was widely anticipated, newly elected Adelanto Councilwoman Joy Jeannette joined with Mayor Richard Kerr and Councilman John Woodard to fire long-suspended City Manager Gabriel Elliott in one of her first acts as an elected official Wednesday night.
Jeannette was elected to the council in balloting carried out and completed June 5, the day of this year’s California Primary Election. The special election was needed because former Adelanto City Councilman Jermaine Wright was removed from office on January 3, just a little less than two months after he was arrested by the FBI in February on an arrest warrant prepared by the U.S. Attorney’s Office charging him with arranging to accept a bribe and attempted arson.
Wright was remanded to a jail cell for more than six months until his highly conditional release in late May. Under California law, an elected city council member must be removed from office after failing to attend all regularly scheduled meetings over a 60 day period. Wright had last attended a council meeting on October 25. The council, reduced to four members at that point, was unable to break a 2-to-2 deadlock with regard to finding Wright’s replacement.
Wright’s arrest grew out of an intensified scrutiny of the city carried out by federal authorities, including the FBI, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the IRS and the DEA over the city’s accelerated efforts which were initiated in 2015 to legalize and then aggressively promote businesses based in the city that involved marijuana cultivation and the sale of marijuana and cannabis-related products. Kerr, Wright and Woodard had enthusiastically embraced the concept of seizing upon the societal shift away from cannabis use prohibition toward a more liberal acceptance of the drug as one that could be used in both medical and recreational contexts to get in on the ground floor of legal and legitimized marijuana commercialization, thereby sailing the city out of the financial doldrums. The three of them were opposed in that approach by councilman Ed Camargo, who questioned the wisdom of having a city already beset with financial and social problems reinvent itself as a marijuana Mecca. The other member of the council, Charlie Glasper, was likewise concerned that drenching the city in cannabis might have untoward consequences, but he reluctantly went along with the council majority in the hope that the influx of cannabis-related operations in the city would provide it with an economic shot in the arm. Seventeen months before Kerr, Woodard and Glasper were swept into office in the November 2014 election in which Mayor Cari Thomas and councilmen Steve Baisden and Charles Valvo were displaced, the city council in June 2013 declared Adelanto to be in a state of fiscal emergency, a step preparatory toward seeking bankruptcy protection.
Under Kerr’s mayoral leadership the push to marijuanify Adelanto advanced at a rapid clip, during which time the city burned through four city managers, three city attorneys, a public works director and two city engineers, an assistant city engineer and the city’s environmental services director, all or most of whom departed because of their misgivings about the direction the city was taking or were forced out or fired because of their resistance to Kerr’s strategy.
In August 2017, the city council promoted its community services director, Elliott, to the position of city manager, with Kerr, Woodard, Wright and Glasper anticipating that he would facilitate the rapid instituting of an effort to expand the area in which cannabis-related production, warehousing, distribution, wholesaling and retailing activity could take place beyond the city’s industrial park, to which it had originally been limited. This included rezoning significant portions of the city to allow grass to be grown there, stored and processed, packaged and shipped or sold to end users. The city was also making a transition from limiting the activity to mere cultivation of medical marijuana, as was the original game plan, to the growing of a product intended to be smoked or consumed for its intoxicative effect, as well as permitting retail establishments such as clinics and dispensaries for medical marijuana sales to be set up, along with smoke shops, which might best be analogized to liquor stores. Throughout all of this, Kerr, Woodard and Wright were heavily associating with the applicants for permits and licenses to develop and operate these cannabis-oriented businesses, many of whom were pushing the envelope in encouraging city officials to minimize the regulations and standards normally applied to enterprises in the city, among them approvals for construction, occupation, infrastructure and utility provision and attendant code requirements, including waiving fees paid by project proponents and minimizing the scope of city inspections. Kerr, Woodard, Wright and to a lesser extent Glasper assented to most, if not all, of those requests. While Elliott had misgivings about the demands being placed upon him, the power of the four-vote bloc in control of the council made resisting the council majority’s dictates inadvisable for Elliott from a career standpoint, if not impossible in any practical sense.
Not quite three months into Elliott’s tenure as city manager, however, Wright was arrested, casting a pall over the city and reinforcing Elliott’s instinctive sense that complying with the council’s directives was fraught with complication and danger. Moreover, Wright’s arrest had severely chastened Glasper, who became reluctant nigh on to unwilling to support Kerr and Woodard in the headlong rush to transition Adelanto to a marijuana-based economy. The processing of scores of proposals for commercial cannabis operations in the city, from ones that had just been proposed to ones that needed little more than a city inspector’s initials on a plan check list or occupancy permit to open its doors, came to a screeching halt. At once, Kerr and Woodard recognized that Elliott was off the reservation and was no longer playing ball. They began to cast about for some means of either bringing him to heel or cashiering him and bringing in what would be Adelanto’ sixth city manager in less than three years. When Elliott refused to come to heel, Kerr persuaded two of the city’s female employees and a college student engaged in an internship with the city to file sexual harassment claims against the city manager. Using those complaints and the initiation of an investigation into them as a pretext, Kerr was able to persuade the council to put Elliott on paid administrative leave in December. Shortly thereafter, the city brought in as Elliott’s temporary replacement, on an interim basis, Mike Milhiser, a retired city manager with more than 25 years of experience in that capacity in Montclair, Ontario and Upland who in 2017 had served a six-month stint as interim city manager in Adelanto. Elliott remained on paid administrative leave, collecting $18,000 per month, as Kerr repeatedly agendized closed sessions of the council at its regular and special meetings in January, February, March and April to discuss Elliott’s performance and his termination. Kerr and Woodard, during those sessions, were unable to convince Glasper and Camargo to provide the third crucial vote to fire Elliott. The prospect that Kerr and Woodard would ever get Glasper and Camargo to go along with sacking Elliott evaporated at the end of February when the investigator looking into the sexual harassment allegations against Elliott returned a finding that failed to sustain the accusations. Despite his best efforts, Kerr was unable to get consent from Glasper and Camargo to make an appointment to replace Wright who would side with him and Woodard to establish a ruling coalition that would allow the city to get back on track with regard to approving the backlog of marijuana/cannabis-based enterprises on tap for inclusion as part of Adelanto’s business stock. Ultimately, the council voted to have Wright’s replacement chosen by the city’s voters at a special election that would coincide with the June Primary.
Three candidates came forth. Two of those, Diane Esmeralda-Holte and Ronald Beard, were clearly at odds with Kerr. The third, Joy Jeannette, who was appointed to the planning commission by Woodard and who had consistently voted as a member of the panel in support to the projects Woodard, Kerr and Wright favored. The crowd that had so much riding on Kerr and Woodard reestablishing their dominance in Adelanto – those seeking to establish cannabis-related operations in town – came forth to support Jeannette, providing her campaign directly with money to purchase radio and newspaper ads, or to print and mail glossy handbills and electioneering material supporting her, together with paying for billboards that provided her with overwhelming name recognition.
Meanwhile, Milhiser continued to oversee the city in an interim capacity. He was, however, a retiree, and regulations imposed by the California’s public employees’ pension system prevent retirees from working more than 960 hours within a fiscal year, which runs from July 1 through June 30. Thus, Milhiser was obliged to step down as acting city manager at the beginning of May. Kerr sought to fill that gap with the city’s current director of development services, Charles Rangel, who, Kerr felt, might prove amenable to his designs with regard to rezoning to accommodate the dozens of speculators who have already purchased land or are in escrow to buy land upon which they hope they will be able to operate cannabis-based businesses. Though Kerr made his best pitch to Camargo and Glasper, neither would give him the necessary third vote to hand the keys of the city to Rangel on a temporary basis.
On May 8, FBI and IRS agents armed with search warrants descended upon Adelanto City Hall, the Jet Room medical marijuana dispensary located at 17499 Adelanto Road just south of Joshua Avenue in Adelanto, a law office in the City of San Bernardino where the corporate headquarters for the Jet Room’s parent company is located, as well as Mayor Kerr’s Adelanto home. That search related to the continuation of the investigation into further graft allegations similar to the charges leveled against Wright.
In late May, by a unanimous vote of the four members of the council, Brad Letner, who had recently left his position as the executive director of the Hesperia Chamber of Commerce after nearly four years running that organization in his first civilian assignment after retiring as a lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Army, was selected to serve in the capacity of Adelanto’s acting city manager.
On June 5, the election was held, with Jeannette appearing to be the clear winner based upon unofficial results. Five weeks later, those results were certified and at Wednesday night’s city council meeting, Adelanto City Clerk Cindy Herrera stated that the final certified results of the election showed that Jeannette carried 49.61 percent of the vote, with 899 votes, Beard captured 364 votes or 20.09 percent and Holte garnered 549 votes or 30.3 percent.
Jeannette was sworn in and participated as a member of the city council in the closed session that preceded the evening’s open session. When the council filed back into the chambers after the closed session discussion, City Attorney Ruben Duran announced that the council had carried out “a performance evaluation of the city manager under Government Code Section 54957, which the council did consider, upon which the council considered item number 4, employee dismissal, discipline or release under Government Code Section 54957. On a motion by Mayor Kerr, seconded by Vice-Mayor Woodard, a vote of 3-2 with council members Glasper and Camargo opposed, the council voted to terminate the contract of Gabriel Elliot as the city manager.”
Reached by the Sentinel after the vote, Elliott said, “My heart goes out to the employees of the City of Adelanto who have to continue to work under those conditions.”