Less than four weeks into his tenure as Adelanto city manager, Jessie Flores early this week fired City Clerk Cindy Herrera.
Three days later, City Attorney Ruben Duran tendered his resignation amid indications that the city council was going to fire him today.
Herrera, who made a steady rise through the ranks over a 31-year career while withstanding the vicissitudes of a political landscape which historically has proved out to be as or more treacherous than those in any of San Bernardino County’s 23 other cities throughout the county’s 165-year existence, at last succumbed to the wicked undertow of the cutthroat political ethos now predominating at City Hall.
Flores’ advancement through the ranks to his present position as the city’s top administrator has been a mercurial one, tied directly to the political ascendancy of Adelanto Mayor Rich Kerr. Previously, Flores was a limousine driver and gardener, as well as a hanger-on with the now defunct political machine headed by disgraced former San Bernardino County Supervisor Bill Postmus. In 2014, Flores, acting in the capacity of what some referred to as campaign manager, assisted Kerr in his maiden run for political office, when the latter challenged then-incumbent Mayor Cari Thomas. With the city then facing a substantial budget deficit and teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, voters made a clean sweep of the incumbent candidates up for election in the November 2014 city council race. Thomas was voted out, along with councilmen Charles Valvo and Steve Baisden. They were replaced by Kerr, John Woodard and Charlie Glasper, respectively.
Shortly after the just-elected city council members were seated, Kerr began pushing his colleagues and then-City Manager Jim Hart to hire Flores into a mid-level administrative/managerial position with the city as a full-fledged staff member. Initially, while Hart was yet city manager, there was resistance to doing so, not least because of the implication that such a hiring, given Flores’ lack of experience and expertise, might be perceived as baldfaced political patronage.
Kerr quickly formed a political alliance with Councilman Jermaine Wright, who had been elected to the council in 2012, and Woodard. All three expressed the collective determination to revitalize the city economically, and with the on-again, off-again support of Glasper and the remaining member of the council, Ed Camargo, charged ahead with a single-minded devotion toward attracting business and development to the city, expressing a willingness to dispense with formalities and pesky regulations in the process, vowing to facilitate the efforts of any project proponents willing to gamble on setting up operations in Adelanto. Nor would the ruling troika turn their noses up at business proposals that heretofore had been anathema among virtually all of the county’s municipalities, namely those related to medical marijuana. The suspension of traditional municipal protocols in the headlong pursuit to attract businesses without regard to the longer term implication of making such commitments and granting such entitlements did not sit well with Hart, and he resigned, in lieu of being forced out, in February 2015.
Flores was eventually offered, and quickly accepted, the post of contract economic development director. His contractual status meant that technically he was not a city employee. This provided him with an unconventional – and questionably ethical although not quite illegal – opportunity to play both sides of the street. Whereas an economic development director working directly for the city would have been precluded from entering into any sort of contractual or monetary-based relationship with entities doing business with the city or seeking permits, licensing or project approval from the city, Flores, because of his contractual status, was free to go to work for those he was assigned, as economic development director, to induce into locating there businesses into Adelanto. Thus, Flores’ was authorized by the city to cut through the city’s existing red tape on behalf of project applicants. He was simultaneously at liberty to go to work for those very businesses he was courting on behalf of the city.
In time, this arrangement would become highly problematic. Initially, in rolling out the welcome mat for marijuana entrepreneurs, the city had been somewhat circumspect. Glasper, an Air Force veteran who was 78 years old in 2015, was something of a traditionalist who was dead set against allowing marijuana to proliferate, particularly in a city in which he was a civic official. Camargo, in any event would in no way support the city having anything to do with the drug. The troika was able to get Glasper to hold still for Adelanto tapping into the revenue cannabis could provide by agreeing to limit such operations to ones that involved not the retail sale of the drug to end users in clinics or dispensaries in the city, but operations that were instead devoted to the indoor cultivation of the product in massive quantities that would then be sold to cannabis processing operations, pharmaceutical companies, clinics or dispensaries located elsewhere beyond Adelanto’s city limits. In this way, Kerr, Woodard and Wright were able to get Glasper to go along with them in the first stage of the marijuanification of Adelanto, turning the vote to allow cannabis growing to take place at facilities located within the strict confines of the city’s industrial park into a 4-to-1 approval rather than the bare majority 3-to-2 that would have occurred otherwise.
Over the next three years, events would transpire that brought ignominy and infamy to the city, largely on the basis of the speed with which Adelanto embraced using marijuana – only a short time previously a substance the growing, trafficking, sale, use or even mere possession of which could result in a decades-long prison sentence – to reinvent its economy. In the three-and-a-half years since Hart’s departure as city manager, the city has burned through five more city managers before at last alighting on Flores late last month. In addition, one of the city’s public works managers, the city’s contract engineer, the assistant city engineer, its top planner and its conservation specialist have all been fired or forced out over their reluctance to move as rapidly and aggressively toward a marijuana-based economy as Kerr, Woodard and Wright were demanding. Oftentimes those demands included fast tracking projects, waiving permit fees, suspending requirements and making certifications without carrying out inspections required under the city code or state law. Moreover, as of yesterday, the city has lost four city attorneys in the last two years and nine months.
Ultimately, with the advance of 2016’s Proposition 64, the statewide measure that liberalized the use of marijuana beyond medical use to permit adults to use the plant recreationally and smoke it for its intoxicative effect, Kerr, Wright and Woodard dropped all pretense of limiting the city’s cannabis-based businesses to indoor farms, and went whole hog, moving to open the city to allowing all order of marijuana/marijuana product businesses to proliferate, including processing plants, packaging and distribution concerns, clinics and dispensaries and retail establishments/pot shops, the latter akin to liquor stores. Accompanying this was the spectacle of scandal, as there were numerous examples of inside information relating to the city’s expansion of the zones in which these uses would be permitted being provided to land speculators or business applicants well ahead of the zone changes being made, enabling the recipients of the information to make purchases of property at bargain basement prices and then reap a substantial profit or potential profit when the rezoning occurred and the property value escalated to as much as eight times its selling price.
There is evidence to suggest that the autonomy given to Flores and the freedom he was provided to take money from entities engaged in locating their businesses into Adelanto was a factor that led to the indictment last year of Councilman Wright. On November 7, 2017, Wright was arrested by the FBI pursuant to a warrant prepared by the U.S. Attorney’s Office which spelled out how he had accepted a $10,000 bribe from an undercover FBI agent who had a pending application for a city business license to operate a marijuana distributorship. The money was offered, and Wright agreed to accept it, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, in exchange for Wright’s agreement to use his political influence to prevent city regulators from obstructing its operation. The Sentinel is informed that Wright, who was receiving a stipend of $600 per month as a city councilman, had become upset about the way in which Flores, who initially was making $35 per hour at up to 20 hours per week or $3,000 per month as the city’s contract economic development director, was able to accept money from all order of applicants for city permits, licenses and project approvals. There had been tension between the two as early as 2016, to the point that Wright was at one point open to joining with Camargo and Glasper in calling upon Herrera, who was then the city manager, to terminate Flores’ contract with the city. What was described as Wright’s rivalry with Flores over Flores’ ability to personally profit from the influx of prospective marijuana entrepreneurs into the city was the most serious threat to the ruling coalition consisting of Kerr, Woodard and Wright prior to Wright’s arrest.
Herrera was among the six city managers who have not stood the test of time since Kerr and Woodard were elected in 2014. Following Hart’s departure in February 2015, the city elevated then-Public Works Director/City Engineer Tom Thornton to serve as city manager. But Thornton remained in that position just four months, departing in June 2015. At that point, the council turned to Herrera, promoting her to acting/interim city manager. In March 2016 the council elevated her to full city manager status, dropping the term “interim” from her title. Herrera attempted to keep up with the feverish pace of facilitating cannabis-related businesses applications a majority of her political masters had demanded, as well as clearing the way for more applications by expanding the zones within the city where such businesses could locate, though ultimately, the council ruling coalition of Kerr, Woodard and Wright felt she was not nimble enough in accommodating them.
In January 2017, while Kerr was on the mend from injuries he sustained in a motorcycle accident and was thus partially incapacitated, Herrera crossed Kerr and Woodard when, after receiving reports with regard to irregularities in the way Flores was functioning in his capacity as economic development director, she suspended his contract, pending an investigation into those charges. Within two weeks, Herrera was out as city manager, but allowed to return to her position as city clerk. The suspension of Flores forever marred her relationship with Kerr. Flores remained on suspension for a time, but with Herrera no longer in the city manager’s post, the investigation into Flores dissolved in upon itself. In May 2017, the council reaffirmed Flores in his position as contract economic developer and more than doubled his pay to $75 per hour, by which he was able to pick up $6,000 per month for part time work. It was clear at that time that the ruling council majority held Flores in higher esteem than it did Herrera.
While Herrera’s advancement during the time she was with the city was not as immediate or dramatic as that of Flores, she demonstrated remarkable staying power over the course of more than three decades in the face of intense instability within city government. When she was hired in 1987 as an executive secretary, she came into a situation at City Hall during which the two of Adelanto’s primary political entities of that era were yet on good terms with one another. Patricia Chamberlaine had been one of the prime movers behind the city’s incorporation in 1970. She had been an elected leader as both a councilwoman and mayor. She extended her control over the community by founding and publishing from 1974 until 1983 a newspaper, the Adelanto Independent, meanwhile gravitating to what was an even more powerful position, that of city administrator, comparable to city manager. For well over a decade-and-a-half Chamberlaine was the shot caller in the city. Along the way, she made friends and enemies, allies and rivals. Among those was Ed Dondelinger, who had been a flight line sergeant at George Air Force Base. He acceded to the mayor’s position in Adelanto, with Chamberlaine’s support. Even before the Department of Defense shuttered George Air Force Base in 1992, which precipitated a long and hostile struggle between Adelanto and Victorville as to which city would annex the base and control its civilian use conversion, the relationship between Chamberlaine and Dondelinger soured. For a time Dondelinger, by virtue of his having the ultimate say as the elected office holder who had majority support on the council, prevailed. But Chamberlaine was not without resources, and she fought back, both at the ballot box and otherwise. Against the backdrop of the intense competition with Victorville over the Air Force Base, Chamberlaine put a slate of candidates together, including herself, and took back control of the city council. Dondelinger and his allies responded, rallying his allies to topple Chamberlaine. There ensued a series of recall efforts, successful and unsuccessful, by both sides whenever the opposition was in ascendancy. In one span during the 1990s, as a result of the changeovers in officeholders resulting from both recall elections and regular elections, Adelanto had more council members than any three other cities in the county combined. Whichever side was in power at any given time used, or at least attempted to use, the Adelanto Police Department as a cat’s paw against its political opponents. Scandal erupted and the police chief and two of the department’s officers went to prison. Ultimately, after the city made questionable use of its redevelopment agency to secure funding to expend more than $25 million on what were essentially lawyer’s fees in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to wrest control of George Air Force Base from Victorville, the Chamberlaine and Dondelinger forces burned out and collapsed, and a new era of politicians and administrators came on the scene in Adelanto, with Chamberlaine handing off managerial control of the city to City Administrator Mike Sakamoto. The political bickering did not end, as a succession of parallel and competing political regimes under mayors Thomas Thornberg, Mary Scarpa, Judith Crommie, Ted Hartz and Tristan Pelayes ensued. In 2002, led by then-Mayor Pelayes, the city shuttered its municipal police department and began contracting with the sheriff’s department for law enforcement services. In 2005, it was discovered that Adelanto Councilwoman Zoila Meyer was not a U.S. citizen, was not eligible to vote and was not eligible to hold office. She was forced from office and prosecuted. In 2007, Mayor Jim Nehmens was arrested and charged with embezzlement and resigned from office. In June 2013, the city council declared the city to be in a state of fiscal emergency, a move preparatory to the declaration of bankruptcy. Discussion of disincorporating Adelanto as a municipal entity ensued.
Herrera had lived through all of that roiling instability. She had been promoted to assistant city clerk in 1994 and became city clerk in 1999. Deftly, she managed to be of use to each succeeding council majority, providing each them the services of the machinery of government that was often used against their political rivals. When the old guard lost out to the next group of Young Turks only to be vanquished two or four years later by the next competing controlling majority, she stayed in the role of the keeper of the city’s records and somehow stayed on the good side of everyone.
With the advent of the Kerr regime, she vaulted to the highest level she could go as a city employee in Adelanto, that of city manager. Yet with all the intrigue, she was not fated to last. Recently, in the aftermath of Wright’s indictment and arrest, federal authorities have intensified their scrutiny of Adelanto, its political leadership and its appointed officials and city employees. In May, the FBI made a high-profiled visit to Adelanto, serving search warrants in conjunction with the IRS at City Hall, the premises of one of the city’s dispensaries known as the Jet Room, and at Kerr’s residence. Amid accounts of would-be marijuana millionaires coming into City Hall with briefcases loaded with cash to persuade the powers that be they should be issued permits and licenses, there have been repeated reports that Herrera has been providing information to the FBI.
Upon Flores being elevated to city manager last month, it was hinted that a housecleaning was to take place in Adelanto, and that the heads of several city employees with six figure salaries were on the chopping block. Herrera last year received $131,363.48 in salary, $44,433.61 in “other pay,” and $11,715.24 in benefits for a total compensation of $187,512.33.
By elliptical suggestion, Flores has attempted to convey that Herrera’s pay grade had something to do with the move to fire her, though he did not say so directly.
The Sentinel inquired with Adelanto’s official spokesman, Mike Stevens, about Herrera’s sacking, including whether Flores had fired Herrera of his own volition and on his own authority or whether he had been instructed to do so by the city council.
Stevens responded, “Effective August 20, 2018 Cindy Herrera is no longer employed by the City of Adelanto; her departure is a confidential personnel matter protected by law, and the City of Adelanto will have no further comment.”
On Tuesday, the city through acting City Clerk Brenda Lopez scheduled a special meeting of the city council for today, Friday, August 24. The agenda called for the consideration of “public employee discipline, dismissal or release” along with the “public employee appointment for city attorney.”
Reading between the lines, Duran, who has been with the city since July of last year when he replaced Curtis Wright following his resignation, lodged a letter with the city in which he wrote, “I must regretfully tender my resignation as your city attorney.”
Reportedly, the city has made arrangements with the law firm of Olivarez Madruga Lemieux O’Neill to have at least two of its attorneys attend today’s meeting. It is anticipated one of the lawyers from that firm will be designated as Duran’s replacement.