Adelanto In Throes Of Kerr/Woodard/Wright-Induced Marijuana Hangover

For three succeeding generations of potheads when marijuana was illegal, a constant refrain they made in the praise of weed while calling for its legalization was was that it was a more benign intoxicant than alcohol. One of the herb’s selling points was that a night of smoking it would not leave one with a hangover the next morning. Despite that, now, at the end of 2018, with the substance having been legalized, the City of Adelanto has awakened from a three-year plus pot party with one doozy of a collective headache of migraine-scale proportion, one that is likely to cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. A remarkable aspect of the circumstance is that a substantial number of those residents with the incessant pounding in their temples never tried the stuff.
Accompanying the headache is a serious question as to whether the citizenry as a whole should be held responsible and financially accountable when their elected leadership runs renegade.
The troika of Rich Kerr, John Woodard and Charles Glasper blew into office in November 2014, supplanting respectively then-Mayor Cari Thomas, and councilmen Steve Baisden and Charles Valvo. Kerr and Woodard, who had their share of encounters with fired-up marijuana, had a vision – not unlike the vision of St. Paul who had his own encounter with a burning bush on the road to Damascus that would have its societally transformative impact – that a major shift was in the wind. Eighteen years before their election, the voters of California had spoken with the passage of 1996’s Compassionate Use of Marijuana Act, which allowed those with a prescription from a medical doctor to use marijuana for medical purposes. Momentum was building that would fully manifest with 2016’s passage of Proposition 64, California’s Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which would legalize use of the substance for its intoxicative effect. Together with the support of then-incumbent Councilman Jermaine Wright and the more tentative support of Glasper, both Kerr and Woodard began laying the foundation for getting their city, which was tottering on the brink of bankruptcy when they came into office, in on the ground floor of the coming marijuana-based economic boon.
Initially, they attempted to dress the revolution in as conventional of garb as they could. They did not immediately call for across the board liberalization of the city’s ordinances pertaining to marijuana or the relaxation of regulations. It started with the reasonable-enough seeming proposal to simply allow medicinal-grade marijuana to be grown in indoor nurseries located within the city’s existing industrial park, with the proviso that the crops would be sold wholesale only to the operators of medical marijuana dispensaries located outside of the city. None of that marijuana was to be available for retail sale in the city, and the establishment of marijuana retail facilities was yet prohibited in Adelanto. The idea, as it was publicly represented, was to merely allow the city to capitalize on growing an agricultural product to feed the demand elsewhere.
Internally at City Hall, however, something else entirely was going on. The nursery concept was merely a ploy to get one foot in the door and then follow it with further liberalizations/radicalizations that were ultimately aimed at transforming Adelanto into the marijuana capital of California and a virtual worldwide cannabis mecca. Even before the irresistible momentum toward that goal fully manifested, there were city employees who saw that there was something illegitimate-seeming about what was going on, that the initiative to move Adelanto toward a cannabis-based economy that would fill city coffers with cannabis tax revenue carried with it the intent of at the very least lining the pockets of the controlling council majority’s cronies if not the pockets of those council members themselves.
An early casualty of the city’s change in direction from a city that adhered to the essentially uniform prohibition that most if not all San Bernardino County cities had with regard to the commercial availability of marijuana was, not surprisingly, Adelanto’s long-time city manager, Jim Hart. Very early on – just three months into Kerr’s and Woodard’s tenure on the council – Hart had come to a realization of the scope of the council majority’s true intention. In private with the council, he registered his reservations, but it was clear that the council was determined. Hart resigned in February 2015, effective the following month. The council moved to replace him with City Engineer/Public Works Director Tom Thornton, believing he would be amenable to facilitating their designs for the city.
Within two weeks in the interim city manager’s assignment, Thornton learned what Hart knew, which was that the council troika of Kerr, Woodard and Wright had taken the pulse of much of the city staff, in particular those in key positions with regard to planning, land use, zoning and code enforcement, to determine who would and who would not be on board with their aggressive marijuana-related business establishment agenda. Before Thornton was in place, the three council members, without taking any votes in closed or open session, had been pressuring Hart to ease Senior Management Analyst Mike Borja, Conservation Specialist Belen Cordero and Public Works Superintendent Nan Moore out the door. They likewise pressured Thornton to do the same. Thornton stalled for time, and with the assistance of then-City Attorney Todd Litfin, informed the council that a precipitous firing of key staff members could not be effectuated without first formulating justification for doing so that had a sound basis. The council majority, assuming that Thornton was assembling that basis, awaited the action from Thornton, which never came. Instead, Thornton began preparing to resign from the interim city manager’s position and go back to his post as city engineer/public works director without carrying out the firings he was being told to undertake. Before resigning as city manager in early July 2015 though, Thornton used the opportunity he had to document, record and convey in a series of memos and emails to Litfin and others what the controlling element of the city’s political leadership was up to. In one memo to Litfin, Thornton referred to Kerr, Woodard and Wright as “three rogue council members” who were misusing their authority to meddle “constantly with the day-to-day operations of the city.” Thornton outlined his refusal to fire city officials whose performance was lacking in no appreciable regard. He said he feared that carrying out the council majority’s orders to make the firings would result in a “multimillion dollar lawsuit against the city for wrongful termination.”
Virtually simultaneous with Thornton’s resignation as interim city manager, the council voted to eliminate Borja and Moore’s positions, justifying that move as a cost cutting measure.
At that point, the council turned to City Clerk Cindy Herrera to step into the position of manager, replacing Thornton. Herrera had a cordial familiarity with Kerr’s wife, Misty, that bordered on a friendship, had been hired by the city in 1987 as an executive secretary, was promoted to assistant city clerk in 1994 and had been city clerk since 1999. Kerr, Woodard and Wright offered her the top city job, nearly doubling her city clerk’s salary from $79,121.86 to $149,117.80 and increasing her total annual compensation including benefits and add-ons from $127,729.18 to $201,511.29, calculating that they might thus buy her loyalty and allegiance to their agenda.
Indeed, for a time at least, Herrera went along with the trio as best she could, working at putting the final touches on the plan to permit medical marijuana cultivation facilities to operate in the city’s industrial park. In November 2015, the ordinance putting a protocol for doing just that was passed by the council by a 4-to-1 margin, with Kerr, Woodard, Wright and Glasper in favor and Councilman Ed Camargo, who never favored allowing commercial marijuana-related business of any type to set up operation in the city, dissenting. Litfin, unwilling to be the city attorney of record when that ordinance was passed and put into force, resigned. He was replaced by Julia Sylva, who gamely sought to facilitate the city’s foray into the largely uncharted territory of making legitimized marijuana production a key element of a community’s economic foundation. Sylva burned out rapidly, leaving in April 2016 as a prodigious number of applicants flooded into City Hall, resulting in the city granting permits to no fewer than 25 cannabis growing operations in five months. Sylva was replaced as city attorney by Curtis Wright, of the law firm Silver & Wright LLP. Curiously, however, Sylva continued in some capacity with the city which to this day remains unclear. She was paid for legal work for more than a year after her departure. The precise nature of that legal work was never documented in any way that was publicly accessible. Some city employees speculated that Sylva had learned of some activity that Kerr, Woodard and Wright had involved themselves in whereby they had some order of a financial stake, and so the trio had arranged the payments to her to keep her quiet. With Curtis Wright, who was no blood relation to Jermaine Wright, in place, the council majority doubled down, effectively escalating the ante and transitioning Adelanto from a jurisdiction allowing cannabis-related businesses limited only to agricultural operations to one that embraced all level of marijuana-based commercial enterprises, including medical marijuana dispensaries and the coming advent of recreational marijuana emporiums. There were yet some city employees at various levels and stages resisting the push, based on what they considered to be corner-cutting or suspensions of regulations and violations of existing ordinances, laws and zoning regulations. Those employees, if they openly resisted, soon found themselves on the wrong side of Kerr, Woodard and Wright.
Accompanying this were zoning changes that provided for property that was previously prohibited from hosting operations involving commercial cannabis uses being rezoned to accommodate just such activity. As the result of those changes, the value of the property escalated overnight, anywhere from three times to seven times its previous value. There were widespread indications that inside information about which properties within the city would be accorded those zone changes was being provided to land speculators. Evidence existed, in fact, that on at least one occasion and perhaps several others, Woodard, a real estate broker, had profited by receiving a commission on a real estate transaction on a property that was sold shortly in advance of the zoning on the property being altered to allow cannabis-related activity thereon.
Into this mix, Mayor Kerr, with the support of Woodard and Wright, invited his 2014 campaign manager, one-time planning commissioner Jessie Flores, to serve as the city’s contract economic development director. Flores was given a contract that paid him a relatively modest $3,000 per month to serve in the capacity of economic development consultant, in which capacity he was to seek to interest businesses of all stripe to set up operations within the city. Under the arrangement, Flores was not an actual city employee, and his contract allowed him to simultaneously go to work for those businesses he was seeking to attract to Adelanto. Thus, Flores was in a position to act as an omnidirectional conduit of information between city officials and potential businesses. Moreover, his ability to accept money from those businesses and his simultaneous closeness to Kerr and a lesser extent Woodard led to questions as to whether he was a conduit of more than just information between those businesses and the city’s elected officials. These suspicions intensified when Flores, who had no actual authority as a city consultant, began to pressure and then order city officials to stand down in their enforcement of regulations pertaining to cannabis-related businesses or to waive fees that such applicants for business licensing and permits would normally be required to pay.
At the same time, Kerr, Woodard and Wright were similarly seeking to compromise city staff’s regulatory and enforcement functions. In one notable display in December 2016, during a city staff meeting at which Mayor Kerr and Councilman Glasper were present along with Herrera, Flores and the Adelanto’s contract City Engineer Wilson So, Assistant City Engineer Aaron Mower, Senior Planner Mark De Manincor and Conservation Specialist Belen Cordero, Kerr insisted that a multitude of projects, virtually all of them cannabis-related, be fast tracked and the development fees, infrastructure fees and permit fees for them be waived. Kerr suggested that any loss of immediate revenue the city might sustain as a result be offset by the city applying for grants. When staff sought to explain to the mayor that this was not realistic or in keeping with rudimentary planning standards and would entail some $40,000 in expense in making those applications with no guarantee of success, Kerr became irate and profane, threw his own cell phone across the room, thundering that those present needed to change their attitudes, or else. He then stormed out of the meeting. Two days later, De Manincor, Cordero, Mower and So were axed in a 4-to-1 vote of the city council, effective January 1, 2017. Also fired were a planning assistant, finance consultant and information technology division employee.
For Herrera, who had been seeking to accommodate her political masters while simultaneously attempting to maintain at least the rudimentary standards of municipal planning and land use policy practices, the gutting of that element of the city staff instrumental in processing the applications put her in an untenable position. Kerr, Woodard and Wright did not see it that way, as the loss of those staff members was not a hindrance to what they were seeking to do but rather of assistance, since the idea was to have the city’s regulatory division stand down anyway.
With the council majority already feeling that she was not moving rapidly enough to achieve their goals, and Kerr temporarily laid up as the result of a mishap on his motorcycle, in January 2017 Herrera gambled and forced the moment to a crisis by suspending Flores’ contract, pending an investigation into the charges being leveled at him by a citizens group maintaining there were irregularities in his arrangement with the city.
Within two weeks, Kerr was more or less recovered from the injuries he had sustained in his motorcycle accident and only day after his return, Herrera was out as city manager, though she was allowed to remain as city clerk. Kerr and his colleagues brought in Mike Milhiser, who was in retirement after a 28-year career as city manager in Montclair, Ontario and Upland, to take over the reins of the city.
In August 2017, the city council elevated Gabriel Elliott, who at that point was the city’s director of development, to serve as city manager. Elliott’s expertise with land use protocol would allow him to expedite the growing backlog of cannabis-related business applications, the council majority believed. Elliott, however, like Herrera, Thornton and Hart before him, proved too methodical in the application of general municipal development protocols and adherent to existing standards to please Kerr, Woodard and Wright. They were gravitating toward a resolution to be rid of him as well when on November 8, 2017, City Hall and all of Adelanto was rocked with the FBI’s arrest of Councilman Jermaine Wright. That arrest was based on an arrest warrant prepared by the U.S. Attorney’s Office the previous day in which it was alleged that Wright had taken a $10,000 bribe from an undercover FBI agent who had made an application with the city to establish a marijuana distribution company. It was alleged Wright had agreed to accept the bribe in return for shielding what was represented as the agent’s company from city regulations and code enforcement efforts and that Wright had also solicited another undercover FBI agent to take part in an arson plot to destroy Wright’s restaurant so he could collect on a fire insurance policy he had on his business.
This interrupted plans to sack Elliott and bought him something of a reprieve. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of what befell Wright, both Kerr and Woodard remained intent on proceeding with approving all of the cannabis-related business proposals pending at City Hall and facilitating the operations of those already approved. Glasper, however, had lost his nerve with Wright’s arrest and was not willing to stand with Kerr and Woodard, who no longer had the third crucial vote they needed to continue with their agenda. By December, Kerr, beside himself with rage toward Elliott for thwarting his plans, formulated a plan to remove him by prevailing upon two female employees and an intern to lodge sexual harassment complaints against the city manager.
This was used as a pretext to suspend Elliott, and Milhiser was brought in once more to serve in the interim city manager capacity.
In May, the FBI descended upon Adelanto again, raiding both City Hall and Kerr’s home. No arrests were made, however, and on June 6, during a special election corresponding with the California Gubernatorial Primary, Adelanto conducted a special election to replace Wright on the city council whose removal from that panel had been necessitated early this year as a result of his having missed attending city council meetings for more than 60 days as a consequence of his being in federal custody following his arrest. Joy Jeannette, who was backed by Kerr, Woodard and bankrolled by elements of the cannabis industry which allowed others to run a well-financed campaign on her behalf utilizing newspaper and radio ads, handbills, mailers and billboards, prevailed in the race. Upon her being sworn into office, Elliott was fired, Flores was installed as city manager, Herrera was terminated from her position as city clerk and those remaining elements of city staff who were proving obstructionist to the aggressive cannabis-industry facilitation game plan favored by Kerr, Woodard and Jeannette were ordered to end their opposition and stand down, or were terminated. Any city employees known to have cooperated with the FBI in its investigation were fired.
In November, both Kerr and Woodard were obliged to stand for reelection, the four-year term to which they were elected in 2014 at that point drawing to a close. Glasper, who is in the early stages of dementia, was prevailed upon by his family to not run. Kerr was bested in the mayoral race by Gabriel Reyes. Woodard, likewise, was turned out of office. He and Glasper were supplanted by Gerardo Hernandez and Stevevonna Evans.
The departures of Wright, Woodard and Kerr have come too late to stave off no fewer than 17 current or contemplated lawsuits filed by various city employees. Victorville-based attorney James Alderson at present is representing at least five former Adelanto employees in wrongful termination suits. Among those are Nan Moore, who had been with the city for 18 years when she was given the axe as public works superintendent in July 2015; Mike Borja, the city’s senior management analyst who had been with the city for ten years when he was keelhauled at the same time; and conservation specialist/administrator Belen Cordero, who had been with the city for 17 years when she was fired in the December 14, 2016 massacre. Another early victim of the purge of employees was public works maintenance worker Jose Figueroa, who also sued. One-time senior planner Mark de Manincor, another victim of the December 14 sackings, has likewise moved toward initiating legal action.
Adelanto Community Safety Manager and Chief Code Enforcement Officer Steve Peltier along with four city code enforcement officers, Roman Edward De La Torre, Apolonio Gutierrez, Amber Tisdale, and Gregory Stephen Watkins have lodged written complaints with the city, alleging Kerr and Flores acted to shield certain cannabis-related businesses from monitoring and enforcement.
Two of the four former employees/interns caught up in dueling sexual harassment charges lodged against Kerr and Elliott in December, Adrianna Ortiz, a contract employee, and Rachel Suraci, Elliott’s one-time secretary, are suing the city.
In the final stages of the Kerr administration, the city’s three information technology division employees, Ben Pina, Ibriham Abudluld and Adam Watkins were cut when Kerr and Woodard learned that the three had cooperated with the FBI and were turning over digital information, consisting primarily of videos of city council meetings, to federal agents. They are progressing toward suing the city as well.
A common theme in the lawsuits and claims filed so far is that the former employees maintain they were whistleblowers and that they endured harassment, hostile work environments, retaliation, and wrongful terminations.
The city earlier managed to have the lawsuits filed by Borja, Moore and Cordero dismissed on what the city maintained were free speech grounds. The trio’s attorney, James Alderson, appealed those dismissals and prevailed with each one. Now, with Borja, Moore and Cordero winning the appeals portion of their cases, which included three findings by the appeals court that there is a likelihood that the plaintiffs will prevail in their suits, current city officials have an object demonstration of how the several ongoing wrongful termination cases against the city will proceed. The court has already found in preliminary rulings that individual members of the council acting without the authority of an official vote of the entire body had no direct authority over staff and what transpired was a violation of the Adelanto City Charter and Brown Act.
Both Elliott and Herrera have retained former Adelanto Mayor Tristan Pelayes, a principal in the Riverside-based law firm of Wagner & Pelayes, to represent them. Elliott has sued the city, alleging Kerr actively prevented code enforcement officers from enforcing regulations on a number of marijuana businesses in the city and that Kerr accepted a $200,000 bribe for the sale of the city’s public works building, which contained the city’s emergency operations center, to an entrepreneur who is intent on converting the property to a marijuana cultivation facility. In that claim, he acknowledged having provided the FBI with information about graft in Adelanto. Pelayes has lodged a claim against the city on behalf of Herrera, who is also known to have cooperated with the FBI.
While the voters in Adelanto have now removed Kerr and Woodard from office and the action by the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office resulted in Wright no longer serving in the capacity of city council member, the residents and taxpayers in Adelanto collectively, under civil law, may yet be deemed liable for what various current and former city employees were subjected to by Wright, Woodard and Kerr. The matter is complicated by the consideration that several of the plaintiffs were terminated while one of the potential plaintiffs – Herrera, who has yet to lodge her own suit – was city manager and at the behest of Kerr, Woodard and Wright carried out action over which the city is being sued.
With Kerr, Woodard and Wright no longer in their positions of authority, three of the major obstacles to a potential cure to much of the problem appears to be removed. That is, the reinstatement of the plaintiffs to their former positions now appears possible, if indeed they are amenable to returning to work in Adelanto. Such a potential settlement would most likely contain with it a provision for the plaintiffs to receive back pay and that their lawyers be paid.
If those employees agree drop their suits in exchange for being rehired, whatever back pay they are due and paying their legal fees, the city may get out from underneath the damage Kerr, Woodard and Wright inflicted on the cheap, for as little as $3 million to $4 million. If not, Adelanto’s taxpayers may very well find themselves with an interminable $25 million marijuana hangover.
Mark Gutglueck

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