By Mark Gutglueck
An embryonic move toward disincorporating Adelanto prompted the city council this week to break the deadlock it has suffered through over the last several months, and install an acting city manager.
Brad Letner, who 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 by a unanimous vote of the four current members of the council during a closed session Wednesday night.
Letner’s presence at City Hall is necessitated by the acrimonious meltdown between Mayor Rich Kerr and City Manager Gabriel Elliott, who has been on an extended leave of absence since December.
The dispute between Kerr and Elliott reflects a larger struggle between traditionally conservative forces in and outside the High Desert city of 35,000 and a more venturesome contingent of residents and entrepreneurs who have moved over the last three years toward embracing the cultivation, processing, distribution and marketing of marijuana and cannabis products as a means of financially rejuvenating the city’s private and public sectors. That shift has paralleled the social and legal acceptance of marijuana as both a medicine and an intoxicant, as medical marijuana dispensaries first made legal with the passage of 1996’s Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use of Marijuana Act, began to proliferate in earnest in the last few years and then voters in 2016 passed Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, legalizing the recreational use of the drug.
Kerr intrepidly put himself at the forefront of that movement, militating with the solid support of his council colleagues Jermaine Wright and John Woodard and the wishy-washy support of councilman Charles Glasper. The four sought, first, in 2015 to welcome large scale marijuana cultivation operations into the city’s industrial park zone, and subsequently, beginning in 2016 and into 2017, expand the tolerance of cannabis-related operations from agricultural production of medical marijuana to permitting all order of commercial marijuana activity. Though the city’s new policy ran diametrically counter to the social mores and laws that had been in place for generations and reversed the accustomed governmental role of prohibiting marijuana possession, use, and trafficking while imposing upon offenders stiff penalties including decade-long prison sentences for disobeying those laws, Kerr, Woodard, Wright and their supporters braved the uncertain political waters and the reactionary legions arrayed against them. Patiently and persistently, they asserted that the wealth to be realized from getting in on the ground floor of the marijuana revolution was too substantial to turn down, and that the city stood, by simply levying assessments on the proceeds in terms of permits and taxes, to create a revenue stream that would in short order offset the dire financial situation the city government had been in for more than a decade. In 2013, Adelanto had been on the doorstep of bankruptcy, at which time the city council, as previously composed, had declared the city in a state of fiscal emergency.
The mad frenzy that brought dozens, then scores and eventually hundreds of applicants for business licenses into City Hall, a seeming fulfillment of the promise that Kerr and his ruling coalition had made that the new policy would turn the city around financially, at first stymied the mayor’s critics. But in November 2017, several months after an undercover federal task force of investigators including ones from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Securities Exchange Commission had come into town, Councilman Wright was arrested by the FBI on a warrant prepared by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in which it was alleged that he had made arrangements to accept a bribe from an undercover FBI agent in return for assisting the agent, posing as an applicant for a business permit for a marijuana distribution operation in the city, in cutting through city red tape and avoiding or getting around city zoning and code regulations. Since the time of his arrest on November 7, Wright has yet to be freed from custody. In January, after having missed more than two months of regularly scheduled meetings of the council, he was removed from office, as is specified by state law. In the meantime, Glasper, who had been made skittish by Wright’s arrest, dropped out of Kerr’s ruling coalition in seeming abandonment of the momentum which had enabled the marijuanification of Adelanto, and began siding on a number of crucial votes, in particular those pertaining to zone changes that would permit the expansion of the areas within the city where commercial cannabis activity could take place, with councilman Ed Camargo, who had been steadfast in his opposition to liberalizing the city’s policy with regard to activity relating to marijuana all along. This created a number of instances in which speculators, who had purchased property within Adelanto based on assurances provided to them by Kerr, Woodard and/or Wright that the property would soon be rezoned to permit marijuana cultivation or cannabis-related product manufacturing or sales, found themselves with property they could not develop as they envisioned nor sell or lease it to others who had the intent of using it for commercial cannabis activity. As those entities began to pressure Kerr and Woodard, the mayor and his ally turned to City Manager Gabriel Elliott to assist them in delivering on the promises they had made. But Elliott, who had been elevated to the city’s top staff position from his previous billet of the city’s development services director by the Kerr-led council in August 2017, had misgivings all along with regard to the aggressive move toward a cannabis-based economy for the city. He had gone along with that program when it was being pushed by a four-member council majority, but in the light of Wright’s arrest and Glasper’s reluctance to stay that course, Elliott too resisted the call by Kerr and Woodard to continue with the zone changes that would make more and more property within the city available for growing, processing or selling marijuana.
Elliott’s instransigence on this point angered Kerr and Woodard. In December, Kerr orchestrated the filing of three sexual harassment complaints against Elliott by two city employees and an intern. Elliott was immediately put on paid administrative leave while those complaints were investigated. In early March of this year, an independent investigator delivered her finding that the complaints against Elliott could not be sustained. Nevertheless, neither Kerr nor Woodard would support ending Elliott’s suspension. Their unwillingness to reestablish Elliott, who remains under suspension and continues to draw $18,000 per month under that status, is widely perceived to stem from his resistance to the agenda of accommodating cannabis-related business applications and approvals at a pace in keeping with Kerr and Woodard’s expectations. Since December, Kerr has made seven separate attempts to fire Elliott by placing performance and job reviews for him on the council’s meeting agenda for discussion in closed sessions. To effectuate Elliott’s firing, Kerr and Woodard need a third vote, which neither Glasper nor Camargo have been willing to supply.
On June 5, corresponding with this year’s gubernatorial primary election, the city is holding a special election to replace Wright. Three candidates are vying in that contest: Planning Commissioner Joy Jeannette, former council and mayoral candidate Ron Beard and Diana Esmeralda-Holte. Jeannette is one of Kerr’s political allies. If she is elected, it is anticipated she will supply the third vote to hand Elliott a pink slip.
Following Elliott’s suspension in December, the council agreed to appoint Mike Milhiser, an experienced city manager who had previously led the cities of Montclair, Ontario and Upland for a quarter century and served in the interim city manager capacity in Adelanto from February to July 2017, to return in an interim capacity. Regulations imposed by the California’s public employees’ pension system, however, prevent Milhiser, a retiree, 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 the aftermath of that episode, individuals yet unidentified to the Sentinel initiated inquiries with regard to dissolving Adelanto as a city.
One indication of that effort was made in the Adelanto City Council Chambers after the adjournment of this week’s council meeting. Prior to the public portion of the meeting, the council in closed session had discussed and voted upon Letner’s hiring as acting city manager. Upon adjourning into an open public session, City Attorney Ruben Duran announced Letner’s selection, based upon a motion by Kerr which was seconded by Camargo and unanimously approved by the entire council. Letner was then sworn in, and took the city manager’s place on the council dais. During the public communications portion of the meeting, a woman whom Kerr summoned to the speaker’s podium by identifying her merely by first name – “Bobbie” – addressed the council, offering comments that were somewhat critical of City Clerk Cindy Herrera. After the meeting adjourned, Herrera and Bobbie had an exchange, which is audible on the city council meeting video, as the video and its audio continued to record. Herrera offered Bobbie a defense of her 30-plus year career with the city, including her tenure as both city clerk, then the time she served as city manager, followed by her return to her role as city clerk. As their back-and-forth continued, beginning at the 2 hour 5 minute and 40 second point on the council meeting video, Herrera can be heard telling Bobbie that she had received a call from an individual who was seeking to initiate disincorporation proceedings against the city. Herrera said she had informed Duran of the contact and the caller’s intended goal, which she said she hoped the city attorney had passed along to the city council.
Thus, the newfound urgency the city council had in bringing in Letner as city manager can be viewed as having issued from a concern that the city’s drift over the last several months has left it vulnerable to in fact being disincorporated. In this light, the rare accommodation between the two factions on the council displayed this week appears to be an effort to infuse the city with structure and leadership that has been notably lacking.
The San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission oversees jurisdictional issues throughout the county and would serve as the adjudicating body for any disincorporation effort involving the county’s 24 municipalities. Kathleen Rollings-McDonald, the executive director of the Local Agency Formation Commission, on May 24 told the Sentinel, “There is no official application on file with the Local Agency Formation Commission related to a disincorporation for the City of Adelanto. There have been no formal discussions about such a proposal, but there have been questions regarding what such a process would entail. Disincorporation is a very complex process which requires a formal initiation by either a petition or resolution of application, the preparation of a plan for service and fiscal impact analysis which would outline how the services currently provided would transition and the anticipated reallocation of revenues.”
Councilman Ed Camargo told the Sentinel on May 24 that he was uninformed about any effort to have Adelanto disincorporate, indicating that his willingness to join with Kerr, Woodard and Glasper in hiring Letner into the interim manager’s assignment was not prompted by concern over efforts to dissolve the city as a governing entity or jurisdiction.
Asked if he had acceded to hiring Letner because of a belief that as a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Letner would be unlikely to go along with Kerr and Woodard’s agenda in opening the city to further cannabis-based operations, Camargo said he did not have adequate information to make such a pronouncement.
As to whether his seconding of Kerr’s motion to hire Letner could be seen as an expression of confidence in the new acting city manager and the direction he will take the city in, Camargo said, “I’ll hold my comment until I see how his performance is on a day-to-day basis.”
The city has yet to work out the details of Letner’s remuneration. As a lieutenant colonel, he was paid $89,000 annually. As chamber of commerce executive director, he was paid $71,000 per year. It is anticipated that in Adelanto, he will receive a monthly salary in the neighborhood of $13,000, pro-rating him toward an annual salary of $150,000, topping substantially the amount of money he made in his previous assignments. On top of that, he will also receive benefits somewhere between $20,000 and $35,000 per year.
Kerr, in announcing the hiring Thursday morning in a prepared statement, called Letner “the right person at the right time.”