By Mark Gutglueck
Brad Letner, who took on the assignment of interim Adelanto city manager a little more than two months ago and earnestly sought to carry out the city council’s directives in the face of considerable controversy and challenge, was abruptly terminated last Friday.
In his place, the city council elevated Jesse Flores, the city’s contract economic development director who has strong personal and political connections to Mayor Rich Kerr.
While it was universally recognized that Letner had no municipal management experience at the time he was selected to serve in the interim position on May 23, he was entrusted with the task largely on the strength of his experience as a military officer who had carried out a number of administrative and managerial assignments in his capacity as an Army major and then as a lieutenant colonel. Following his retirement from the Army four years ago, Letner had moved into civilian life, residing in Victorville and landing the position of the executive director of the Hesperia Chamber of Commerce.
Letner’s temporary hold on the job grew out of a progression of events going back more than three years.
In 2015, a majority of the Adelanto City Council had embarked on a plan to turn the 34,000-population city’s moribund economy around by getting in on the burgeoning medical marijuana production market by allowing indoor marijuana cultivation to take place within the city’s industrial park. Subsequently, the council expanded that plan which was originally limited to production and wholesaling of the drug to embrace the concept of allowing the substance to be marketed to end users out of dispensaries and, with the success of 2016’s statewide Proposition 64 Adult Use of Marijuana Act, sales within the 53-square mile city of the drug for recreational purposes. That approach was not without controversy, however. Some city staff members, including three city managers, two city attorneys, the city engineer, assistant city engineer, public works manager, senior planner and conservation specialist, felt the city was being too aggressive in trying to capitalize on the evolving societal acceptance of using cannabis as a medicine and an intoxicant, and wanted the city to apply the same traditional regulations and code restrictions to the start-up cannabis related businesses that are applied to all business and project proposals. This clashed with the imperative – enthusiastically propounded by Mayor Rich Kerr and councilmen John Woodard and Jermaine Wright as well as Economic Development Director Flores and somewhat less spiritedly favored by Councilman Charlie Glasper – that these cutting edge businesses be facilitated so that they could get up and running to place Adelanto on the ground floor of the industry and thereby seize an advantage in the soon-to-be-booming California marijuana economy. This meant, in some cases, waiving fees and fast-tracking or fast-passing project applications and proposals through the land use, planning and licensing phases and then having plan checkers and code enforcement officers stand down and allow these businesses to get underway without exacting inspections and check-offs. In November 2017, one of the problems with that pervasive attitude came home to roost when Councilman Jermaine Wright was arrested by the FBI and charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office with having solicited and accepted a bribe in exchange for his commitment to help an undercover FBI agent masquerading as an applicant for a license and permit to engage in marijuana distribution in Adelanto bypass city red tape in the operation of his ostensible business. Following Wright’s arrest, city staff, led by then-City Manager Gabriel Elliott, became far more cautious with regard to carrying out what had been the council majority’s directions to move at full speed plus to approve cannabis-related business proposals. This created friction between Elliott and both Mayor Kerr and Councilman Woodard, who remained committed to enlivening the Adelanto economy by turning the city into a marijuana Mecca. Wright remained jailed for more than six months and was removed from the council in January for repeated absences from council meetings. Glasper was severely chastened by Wright’s experience and joined with Councilman Ed Camargo, who from the outset was resistant to the concept of transitioning Adelanto onto a marijuana-based economy. This created a 2-to-2 deadlock on the council in which moving any further marijuana/cannabis operations forward through the project approval and licensing processes, to say nothing of the expansion of the zoning districts in which such activities could legally take place, stalled. Kerr and Woodard began to cast about for ways to get their program back on track. In December they used sexual harassment claims against Elliott to initiate an investigation of those charges. That provided a pretext to place him on paid administrative leave. For the next five months Kerr and Woodard militated to fire Elliott and replace him with someone ready to transform Adelanto into California’s marijuana capital, but neither Camargo nor Glasper were amenable to Elliott’s termination. Nor would Camargo and Glasper accede to making a council appointment who would side with Kerr and Woodard to give them a needed third vote to control the council. Instead, the city arranged for a special municipal election to coincide with the June 5 California Primary at which Wright’s successor was to be chosen. As the city was in this holding pattern, Kerr networked with a number of individuals whose cannabis-related projects were in suspension to back the candidacy of Joy Jeannette, who had been Woodard’s appointment to the planning commission and who had demonstrated a previous pattern of votes favorable toward marijuana cultivation projects.
On May 8, the FBI served search warrants at Adelanto City Hall, Kerr’s home, at the Jet Room marijuana dispensary at 17499 Adelanto Road and at a law office in San Bernardino where the corporate office for the Jet Room is located. Over the next two weeks, with Adelanto essentially rudderless while Elliott, forbidden to enter City Hall, remained on administrative leave collecting $15,000 per month in salary and $3,000 in benefits, rumors began to spread that a proposal to disincorporate Adelanto was about to make its way to the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission. In that atmosphere, and in a serious bid for some workable compromise solution, the otherwise divided city council agreed to appoint Letner as the city’s acting city manager.
By all accounts, including Letner’s, he moved swiftly to stabilize the situation, redressing the issues relating to nearly a half year of stagnation and malaise at City Hall, methodically taking stock of what the issues were, while cautiously moving forward. One matter that Letner took on right away was to clarify the lines of command.
“I told staff that I was the only person in the city who worked directly for the council, and that as city employees they were not bound to obey orders or directives that came from anyone who was elected or connected,” Letner told the Sentinel. In this way, Letner said, he ensured that Adelanto under his watch adhered to the classic model of municipal governance in which the elected officials through their official collective action set the city’s policy and entrust to the city manager the assignment of executing that policy through directions to staff.
Letner indicated that he accepted the direction of the full city council as valid directives and sought to implement that policy. He acknowledged that he was not an expert in the ins-and-outs of municipal function.
“Experience does not equate to leadership,” he said. “I was a leader rather than a manager. I had a lack of experience as to what department heads did, so I relied on their expertise. I did not have that experience. What I could do was help with priority.”
Thus, Letner sought to have staff actuate what the council was attempting to do in every respect with which there was a clear and officially voted-upon consensus.
On June 5, the candidate Kerr and Woodard supported, Jeannette, prevailed in the balloting. A little more than a month later, after the election results were certified by the county registrar of voters, she took her place on the council. One of Jeannette’s first acts after she was in place was to join with Kerr and Woodard in terminating Elliott. That development seemed to imply that Letner’s tenure with the city, which from the outset was understood to be temporary and would last only until Elliott resumed his role at City Hall or until his permanent replacement was hired, might be a bit longer than was originally anticipated, as a search/recruitment of a new city manager, likely to take several months, would yet need to be carried forward. Jeanette’s presence on the council revived the city’s course toward facilitating the establishment of cannabis-related operations in the city. Letner, in keeping with the majority will on the council and under the assumption that the direction mapped out by the council majority within the context of evolving California law that entails a tolerance of marijuana and its byproducts as medicinal and intoxicative substances was legitimately arrived at, sought to have staff execute on those policies. That execution was subject to the methodical and appropriate application of regulation and certification procedures and codes pertaining to land use and project application processing inherent in the best practices employed by modern municipalities.
In the aftermath of Elliott’s firing, Letner sized up what staff had accomplished under the brief period of his leadership and what he felt it might be realistic for staff to accomplish before he departed. He sent a letter to the mayor and council encapsulating what goals had been achieved and proposing two separate windows moving forward under which he could continue his efforts. One of those sought a 60-day guaranteed contract. In the other, he projected an eight-month contract running from August 1 to March 1, 2019, in which he said he was looking toward completing in that period the city’s financial audits which had languished undone for more than two-and-a-half years, as well as engaging with the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission with regard to maintaining the city’s spheres of influence. In asking the city for either the two-month or eight-month contract, Letner said, “My role will necessarily be defined by the amount of time I am being given to achieve goals, and whether I am reacting to immediate needs, accomplishing short term goals, or planning/achieving medium and long term goals for the city.”
The length of his contract would also impact, Letner said, “my relationship with city staff – specifically how much they ‘trust’ me to follow through on initiatives or policy changes. At any rate, I would like to know the council’s timeline so that I may prepare for my own transition accordingly.”
In closed sessions, the council twice gave indication that it was prepared to offer Letner a one-month guarantee, with City Attorney Ruben Duran reporting that such an accommodation had been arrived at in principle. Nevertheless, the council twice declined in open session to officially commit to that arrangement. “The council agreed to a 30-day extension in closed session, and the city attorney announced it in coming out of the closed session, but the council rejected it in an open session. They either regretted having made that commitment or had ulterior motives,” Letner told the Sentinel.
On July 25, the council offered him a $2,000 per month pay raise from $10,000 per month to $12,000 per month and a 30-day notice. Letner countered with an offer to continue without the $2,000 raise while asking for a notice of at least 60 days.
“I was not here to make money,” Letner told the Sentinel. “I came here to make a difference.”
At the beginning of the July 25 meeting, the board went into closed session, but took no action with regard to any of the items pertaining to the interim city manager. At the close of the meeting, the council adjourned into a closed session once more. Upon returning from that session, Ruben Duran, the city attorney, stated, “The council reconvened into closed session to consider item one, public employee performance evaluation of the interim city manager. There was no reportable action on the performance evaluation of the interim city manager. There was no reportable action on item number two, the public employee dismissal release. There was no reportable action on item number three, which was a conference with a labor negotiator, the city attorney, with the other party being the city manager. There was no reportable action for item number four, the appointment of a city manager.”
It thus publicly appeared Wednesday night July 25, that Letner would remain as the interim city manager for the foreseeable weeks going ahead.
On Thursday July 26, apparently, the council came to a consensus that Letner was to leave at once and that he was to be replaced by Flores. It has been reported that a special meeting was called for a vote to be taken on that action, which the Sentinel is informed took place on Friday July 27, though the city’s website makes no reference to or recordation of that meeting of the council. At that meeting Letner asked that he be provided with a simple two-week extension so he might prepare city staff for his exit. The council at that point was not willing to extend him the 14 further days. Letner said he believed it would have been better all around for the city to have taken him up on that shortened transition offer. “I don’t think it was going to be easy to explain that having me clean out my desk over the weekend was in the best interest of the city,” he said.
After the conclusion of the meeting it was announced that Letner was out and Flores was in.
While saying he was not attempting “to take credit for these actions, as they are the work of the staff working together as a team,” Letner pointed to what the city had accomplished during his two months and four days as acting/interim city manager, including the creation of a budget book highlighting the city’s balanced 2018-19 budget, the creation of a timeline to complete three years of overdue financial audits in the next eight months, the resolution of over a dozen citizen complaints or requests, his signing on behalf of the city a new fire services contract, instituting new policies and guidance to reduce legal assistance costs, completion of the $1 million purchase/sale agreement of the public works yard, creating a plan to reduce the required footprint of the public works yard by over 80 percent and accomplishing the replacement of the yard at a cost of less than $100,000, the extension of the city’s financial services contract, the drafting of a cannabis tax ballot proposal, and the drafting of a new parcel tax to support public safety improvements.
Letner told the Sentinel, “I have no ill will toward the City of Adelanto. It was a tremendous honor to serve the city as interim city manager. My relationship with city staff was absolutely wonderful.”
He said that both Kerr and Flores deserved credit for their vision and commitment in using the opportunity that the liberalization of the societal attitude toward the use of marijuana and the change in California law provides to push Adelanto to seize an advantageous position with regard to accommodating such operations in the city, amplifying the local economy and creating a tax revenue stream for the city while doing so.
Letner said he had anticipated being in place a little longer than he was, and he said he believed he still had something of value to offer the city. “I feel I owe it to them to discuss my observations of the city and its situation,” Letner said. “I don’t think that is something that should be done in a public newspaper account. It will probably have to be done in a private letter to them.”