Adelanto Begins Trek On The Costly Road Of Reconciling With Former Employees

Adelanto, led by its newly composed city council, this week made what may have been its first visible significant step toward scraping off the legal barnacles that have come to encrust the hull of the city’s listing ship of state.
Adelanto in 2013, teetering over an abyss of insolvency, declared itself to be in a state of fiscal emergency, a move preparatory to filing for bankruptcy. In 2014, all three of the city’s political leaders up for election that year – Mayor Cari Thomas and councilmembers Charles Valvo and Steve Baisden – were displaced by, respectively, Rich Kerr, John Woodard and Charles Glasper.
In short order Kerr, working closely with Woodard and Jermaine Wright, who had first been elected to the council in 2012, embarked on an effort to convert the city to a cannabis-based economy. Presciently recognizing the massive cultural shift that was in the offing by which more than a century of marijuana prohibition would vanish and the substance, which had already gained acceptance for its medicinal effect, would soon be legalized and legitimized for use as an intoxicant, sought to get in on the ground floor of an industry that would generate tax revenue for the city hand over fist.
The game plan Kerr, Wright and Woodard hatched had as its ultimate goal to transform Adelanto into the marijuana capital of California. They undertook that effort in what they hoped would be bite-size stages, done gradually at first and then at a more accelerated pace. The first move was to embrace what might have arguably been the least controversial aspect of the then-current cannabis movement. In 2015 a council majority – including Kerr, Wright and Woodard, with the somewhat reluctant acquiescence of Glasper – voted to allow the cultivation of medical marijuana in what where represented as tightly controlled environments, those being enclosed, i.e., indoor, nursery facilities in the city’s industrial park. Initially, these operations were restricted to a relatively limited district subject to zoning restrictions and a host of regulations. These commercial operations were to be wholesale in nature only, with sales intended to be made strictly to out-of-town purveyors of medical marijuana. No retail sale of the product was to take place within the city limits, and dispensaries remained off-limits in Adelanto.
Even before that was accomplished the city had casualties. Less than three months into Kerr’s tenure as mayor, long-time City Manager Jim Hart, expressing his doubts about the course the mayor and his council allies were setting for the city, tendered his resignation rather than be fired. He was replaced with City Engineer/Public Works Director Tom Thornton, who within two weeks was experiencing the same misgivings Hart had. Thornton realized that the long-evolved municipal standards and protocols Adelanto and most other cities functioned under were out the window and the application of law and logic were no longer part of the culture at City Hall. What mattered to those in political control was that their will be done. Anything or anyone that stood in the way was to be dispensed with. By June Thornton had resigned as city manager to go back to being public works director, where he remained for another seven months before leaving the city entirely. One of the reasons Thornton was unwilling to stay as city manager was that the controlling council majority – the troika of Kerr, Woodard and Wright – were insisting on the sacking of Senior Management Analyst Mike Borja, Conservation Specialist Belen Cordero and Public Works Superintendent Nan Moore, whom they perceived, perhaps rightfully, as obstructionists to their grand designs.
The council elevated City Clerk Cindy Herrera to first the position of interim city manager and then seven months later city manager outright, confident she would do their bidding.
Simultaneously they were consigning City Attorney Todd Litfin to an assignment he did not want, demanding that he construct a legal scheme under which the sale of marijuana in the city could proliferate. As the city came to the brink of doing just that, passing an ordinance allowing marijuana cultivation in the city’s industrial park, Litfin resigned, to be replaced Julia Sylva, who bounded with reckless abandon into the territory where Litfin was too wary to tread, and she facilitated the call to legitimize marijuana production as key element of the community’s economic foundation.
Sylva, whose willingness to bend the law without it being broken was so crucial to what the troika was doing, burned out rapidly, leaving officially in April 2016 as city attorney, but maintaining a mysterious status as a consulting attorney, continuing to be paid money by the city for no specified reason, inspiring rumors that she had blackmail material on one or more members of the troika and was using it. Sylva was replaced as city attorney by Curtis Wright, of the law firm Silver & Wright LLP.
Once the marijuana camel had its nose under the tent, the troika pressed forward, intent on creating this centripetal vacuum that would suck into Adelanto every conceivable type of commercial venture featuring cannabis, from cultivation to distribution to research to product innovation and creation to manufacturing to sales to clinics to emporiums. Kerr at one point enthusiastically proposed creating a university devoted to all things cannabis.
Along the way, the troika recognized that it would need to ensure that city employees got the message, so they ran litmus tests to determine who was personally loyal to them and who was not. They then empowered through promotion those who met their standard: carrying out their orders implicitly. One of those who failed the test was Public Works Supervisor Nan Moore. She was axed. One who passed was one of Moore’s worker, Don Wappler. Wappler was considered, indeed referred to as, Kerr’s blood brother. Once in place as supervisor, Wappler was free to indulge his own agenda as well. One of these was cashiering an employee he just didn’t particularly like, Jose Figueroa, a laborer in the city’s public works department for 25 years.
The troika, whom Thornton once referred to as “three rogue council members,” continued to grind on. With marijuana operations now being approved left and right, more zones to allow for such operations had to be created. Property that was previously dirt cheap became overnight, pursuant to a zone change allowing for the lucrative commercial cannabis use, worth in monetary value as much as 800 percent more. People were coming into City Hall with suitcases full of cash. Once projects were on the way to completion and inspections had to be completed, pressure was being placed on city employees to look the other way or simply sign documents when no vetting had actually taken place. Members of the council were being paid under the table. Any employee who stood on principle by insisting that the law and ordinances, regulations, standards and protocols be upheld were handed their walking papers. Land use decisions were no longer driven by logical zoning regulations but by connection to the power or money elite. City employees with enforcement or inspection authority were ordered to stand down, or else.
In 2017, Cindy Herrera could not force her staff to process the applications of the backlog of cannabis-related business proposals quickly enough, so Kerr moved to fire her. She wisely returned to her post as city clerk. Curtis Wright reached the end of his legal and ethical tether, and he resigned as city attorney. He was replaced by Ruben Duran.
In November 2017, Councilman Jermaine Wright, no relation to Curtis Wright, was caught by the FBI taking bribes to facilitate marijuana business proposals. The free-for-all didn’t stop. Kerr and Woodard continued to insist that the city suspend its inspection and regulation processes to ensure that cannabis-involved ventures flourished, that fees businesses involved in ventures unrelated to marijuana and its byproducts would otherwise be required to pay before setting up shop be waived when the entrepreneur was trafficking in cannabis.
In November 2018, after extensive bad publicity which included the FBI raiding Adelanto City Hall and Mayor Kerr’s home in May 2018, six months after Jermaine Wright’s arrest, Kerr and Woodard were voted out of office. Glasper had declined to run. They have been replaced on the council by the new mayor, Gabriel Reyes, and councilmembers Gerardo Hernandez and Stevevonna Evans.
Though the troika’s existence came to an end in November 2017 with Wright’s arrest and its reign was attenuated until June 2018 when Kerr’s political backers were able to vector enough money to elect a Kerr and Woodard ally, Joy Jeannette, to fill the vacancy, the hold Kerr had over City Hall resumed last summer and lasted until Reyes, Hernandez and Evans were sworn in last month. One of the first things Kerr, Woodard and Jeannette effectuated in July was to fire both Gabriel Elliott and Cindy Herrera.
That proved too much for Duran, who tendered his resignation.
The body count during the four years of the Kerr Administration is staggering: city managers Hart, Thornton, Herrera and Elliott along with Brad Letner, who briefly filled in during Elliott’s forced administrative leave and like all the others did not please Kerr; city attorneys Litfin, Sylva, Wright and Duran; City Clerk Herrera, who holds the distinction of being twice terminated by Kerr & Company; contract City Engineer Wilson So; Assistant City Engineer Aaron Mower; Senior Planner Mark De Manincor; Conservation Specialist Belen Cordero, Senior Management Analyst Mike Borja, Public Works Superintendent Nan Moore; information technology division employees Ben Pina, Ibriham Abudluld and Adam Watkins, all of whom were beheaded after it was determined they were cooperating with the FBI in its probe of City Hall; and the aforementioned public works employee, Jose Figueroa.
At least eight of these have filed suit against the city or are on the brink of doing so. Two other former Adelanto employees, Adrianna Ortiz, a contract worker, and Rachel Suraci, Elliott’s one-time secretary, are suing the city on issues that do not directly involve city council action against them.
In addition, the shabby treatment accorded city code enforcement officers Steve Peltier, Roman Edward De La Torre, Apolonio Gutierrez, Amber Tisdale, and Gregory Stephen Watkins prompted them to lodge written complaints with the city, alleging Kerr and Flores acted to shield certain cannabis-related businesses from monitoring and enforcement.
Adelanto’s potential liability on the cases already filed is well into eight figures. The city earlier managed to have 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, the new city council is at a crossroads. Its members must determine whether they collectively want to continue to fight on behalf of the city and its residents a battle that their predecessors, with whom they were themselves at political odds, entered into against almost a score of former city employees.
This week, it appears that cooler heads prevailed with regard to at least one of those lawsuits.
The city settled for $75,000 and a monthly lifetime benefits stipend the lawsuit brought by Figueroa in 2017 over his 2016 firing imposed by Wappler. Figueroa and his attorney, Alex Galindo, had progressed nearly seven-eighths of the way toward establishing that, as his suit alleges, he was fired arbitrarily by Wappler, who violated protocol by failing to establish grounds for the dismissal and just cashiered Figueroa on the spot without a bona fide written warning or a so-called Skelly hearing to provide a forum to get the reasons for termination on the record or allow Figueroa to contest those grounds. The city’s move to settle was a shrewd one in multiple ways. Wappler had done virtually nothing to lay the groundwork for the firing, and there was reason to believe that documentation relating to Figueroa’s termination such as discipline slips were backdated. Moreover, going to court against Figueroa could have resulted in the airing of the circumstance of Wappler’s advancement, which came because of the termination of his predecessor Nan Moore. Litigating those issues might have provided Moore with even more material than she already has to strengthen her case.
Mark Gutglueck

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