By Mark Gutglueck
It now appears as if suspended Adelanto City Manager Gabriel Elliott will remain in his current holding pattern, banned from functioning in his capacity as the head of municipal staff at City Hall while drawing his $18,000 per month salary, at least until June.
The grudge match between Elliott and Mayor Rich Kerr which resulted in Elliott’s suspension in December has shown no prospect of abating, as Kerr is determined to keep Elliott from returning but lacks a requisite third vote to hand Elliott a pink slip. Kerr has the backing of councilman John Woodard. but neither councilman Ed Camargo nor councilman Charlie Glasper feel Elliott merits dismissal. With the removal of Jermaine Wright from the council following his extended absence from meetings of the council following his November arrest by the FBI after he was charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office with bribe taking and involvement in an arson-for-hire plot, Kerr lacks the crucial third vote that formerly empowered his three-member ruling coalition. The two-to-two deadlock on the council extends to Kerr’s so-far frustrated effort to select an appointee who will line up with him and Woodard so the ruling coalition can be reestablished and Kerr can reassert his ascendancy in Adelanto.
Kerr’s best hope for achieving the control he once exercised over this city of 33,800 now appears to lie with the political aspirations of planning commissioner Joy Jeannette, who was one of three candidates who met all of the filing requirements for a special election to replace Wright that will be consolidated with the June Primary election.
Previously, Kerr had been staking his hopes on Jeannette’s planning commission colleague, Chris Waggener. At the January 23 council meeting, Kerr and Woodard had made a concerted effort to convince either or both Camargo and Glasper to use the council’s authority to simply name Wright’s replacement after both Waggener, Jeanette, former mayor Trinidad Perez and three others, Bradley Eckes, Daniel Hayes and Gabriel Reyes, had stated their interest in stepping into the position.
In his capacity as planning commissioner, Waggener has steadily supported Kerr’s vision of converting Adelanto to a cannabis-based economy, a move that began in 2015, shortly after Kerr, Woodard and Glasper were voted into office in November 2014 as part of a clean sweep that displaced the three incumbents up for election that year, mayor Cari Thomas and councilmen Charles Valvo and Steve Baisden.
Camargo had steadfastly opposed allowing marijuana to be sold, grown or processed in the financially challenged city, which in June 2013 had declared it was in a state of fiscal crisis, a step preparatory for seeking bankruptcy protection. Kerr, had established his bona fides as a conservative leader simply as a consequence of his status as a retired Marine. From that position of political strength, he intrepidly signaled he was willing to explore the viability of establishing medical marijuana growing operations in the city’s industrial park district as a means of creating viable businesses, increasing property values and rejuvenating the city’s tax base. Wright, Woodard and Glasper signed up for the venture, making Adelanto the second city in San Bernardino County, after Needles, to embrace cannabis as an economic panacea. Glasper had stated his opposition to allowing retail operations to set up shop in the city where locals would be able to purchase the drug in smaller quantities for use. He was, however, willing to go along with seeking to get in on the marijuana market, at least initially, because the city’s marijuana operations were to be limited to multiple large scale horticultural operations which were to bring in hefty revenue based upon wholesale marketing of the drug to commercial concerns outside the city, with no sales to end users within Adelanto.
Nevertheless, once the city began clearing a path for these nurseries, a frenzy ensued, with scores of would-be farmers jostling each other to get a piece of the action. Pouring into City Hall, these entrepreneurs were willing to lay down money to apply for permits and initiate the project application process with no guarantee the permits would be granted, while simultaneously paying top dollar to either purchase or lease property where the cultivation was to take place. This speculation gave rise to others gambling on the city eventually acceding to an expansion of the toleration of cannabis retail operations as well. Accompanying this was the spectacle of several speculators purchasing or obtaining options on what had previously been dirt cheap real estate that overnight zoomed up to five, six, seven, and eight times its previous value as it was zoned as eligible for licensed cannabis activity. In some cases, prescient individuals had managed to snatch up properties just before or, in one case, earlier the same day as, those zone changes were made. This gave rise to the widespread belief that a select group of these speculators or entrepreneurs were acting on inside information. That brought in the scrutiny of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and rumors were rampant that members of the council were on the take. Suspicion was vectored toward Kerr, Wright, Woodard and Glasper, all of whom denied that there was anything more to what was going on than a forward looking recognition of a changing ethos with regard to the acceptance of marijuana as a viable medicine for certain maladies and then, when voters in November 2016 approved Proposition 64 allowing recreational marijuana use, its transition into a socially acceptable intoxicant. Still the same, with so much money changing hands and the city council playing a key role in determining just who is able to cash in, suspicions intensified. When Wright was arrested, details emerged about him securing a kickback by using his authority to assist an undercover FBI agent posing as a would-be marijuana distributor setting up a business in Adelanto overcome city red tape. Many interpreted that as confirmation that the city’s other officials openly facilitating marijuana-related businesses were likewise abusing their positions of authority and trust to enrich themselves. While Kerr and Woodard continue to advocate staying the course in having the city tap into the marijuana bonanza, Glasper has been chastened by what befell Wright and he has now joined with Camargo in opposing further expansion of the culture of marijuana tolerance in Adelanto.
The aggressive move by Kerr, Woodard and Wright to attach Adelanto’s financial wagon to the marijuana star had not sat well with Jim Hart, who had been Adelanto city manager since 2004. Hart departed in February 2015, out of step with the direction the trio were intent on taking the city. He was replaced by city engineer/public works director Thomas Thornton, but Thornton likewise had misgivings about what was going on, and he remained in place just four months. The council then turned to city clerk Cindy Herrera. Herrera lasted longer in being answerable to Kerr, Woodard and Wright than had either Hart or Thornton, but by February 2017, she too was unable to abide by the troika’s direction, which at that point was being supported in most respects by Glasper. Herrera was replaced on an interim basis by journeyman city manager Mike Milhiser, who had spent a quarter of a century as city manager in Montclair, Ontario and Upland. By June 2017, Milhiser was faced with the uncomfortable realization that the FBI, DEA and SEC were looking hard at the individuals who had hired him.
Two months later, in August, Kerr, Woodard, Wright and Glasper settled upon elevating Elliott, who until that time had been the city’s community development director, to the position of city manager, making him the fifth person to hold that post during Kerr’s then 33-month tenure as mayor. Kerr said of Elliott at the time of his hiring, “I believe he is a long-term manager. He’s one of the best people-persons I have ever met.”
Kerr and Elliott enjoyed a two-month honeymoon, and Elliott carried out most of the Kerr-led panel’s directives and dictates, even though he had some misgivings about the wisdom of certain actions. Upon Wright’s arrest on November 7, 2017, the ruling dynamic on the council shifted, and Elliott, at least temporarily lurched forward in terms of control at City Hall. Glasper’s cold feet in staying with the game plan of facilitating the sometimes questionable marijuana production and sales schemes of applicants flashing large amounts of cash as they walked into City Hall resulted in Elliott stiff-arming several of those applicants.
That displeased Kerr. By mid-December he had hatched a stratagem of inducing three women – two city employees and a college intern who was participating in a program with the city, to lodge sexual harassment charges against the city manager, who was immediately thereafter placed on paid administrative leave. An investigation into those charges completed last month did not turn up strong enough evidence to sustain those accusations.
Kerr had hopes that he would be able to engineer Waggener’s appointment to the council in January. It was understood that Waggener would then support Kerr and Woodard in cashiering Elliott. When Camargo and Glasper, however, did not succumb to Kerr’s appeals to install Waggener as their colleague, the council was saddled with the alternative of holding an election – in this case most conveniently coinciding with the June Primary – to bring the council up to full-member strength. While it was assumed that Waggener, Jeanette, Perez, Eckes, Hayes and Reyes, all of whom had sought appointment by the council, would run, it turns out that Waggener, Perez, Eckes, Hayes and Reyes either did not apply, did not follow through on or in some fashion did not qualify their candidacies. Jeannette did, however, as did Diana Esmeralda Holte, the secretary for the High Desert Cannabis Association, and Ronald Beard, who ran for Adelanto mayor against Thomas in 2010 and against Thomas and Kerr in 2014, and for city council in 2012.
Jeannette has been endorsed in her council run by Waggener and is committed to support Kerr and Woodard in their determination to fire Elliott. Holte, while in favor of allowing commercial cannabis activity in Adelanto, has given indication of her belief that certain applicants have tainted the approval process in the city by providing under-the-table payments to city officials to obtain favorable treatment and inside information on zoning maps in advance of votes to approve those zoning maps. She has been threatened by several individuals while in attendance at city council meetings. She is considered to be opposed to Kerr’s agenda and does not appear to be disposed to firing Elliott. Similarly, it is anticipated that Beard will likewise oppose firing Elliott.