Jessie Flores, who was inserted into the post of city manager last year by the controlling coalition of the city council as it was formerly composed, was placed on paid administrative leave by a 5-to-0 vote of the Adelanto City Council on Wednesday. The council immediately elevated City Clerk Brenda Lopez into the position of acting city manager. Today, Lopez returned to her position as city clerk, and Socorro Cisneros is now acting city manager.
Flores, a political associate of one-time County Supervisor Bill Postmus and later Postmus’ successor as supervisor, Brad Mitzelfelt, parlayed those relationships into paying employment as a field representative in their First Supervisorial District offices. In 2011, Flores was implicated with Postmus, Mitzelfelt, Charles Steven Cox, Dino DeFazio and Adam Aleman in the Adelanto Charter Academy Scandal, after some $3 million in public funds intended for educational purposes was diverted into the pockets and bank accounts of the several conspirators, resulting in the California Department of Education shuttering the school.Even after Aleman’s 2009 conviction on four political corruption related charges followed by Postmus 2011 conviction on 14 political corruption charges, to say nothing of the Adelanto Charter School debacle, Flores and a coterie of Postmus’ associates remained active in local political circles. In 2015, after the clean sweep in the 2014 Adelanto Municipal Election in which Richard Kerr, John Woodard and Charles Glasper replaced, respectively, Mayor Cari Thomas and councilmen Charles Valvo and Steve Baisden, Flores needle-nosed his way into City Hall operations when Glasper, who was at that time in the initial stages of dementia, nominated Flores to the Adelanto Planning Commission.
In time, at the behest of Kerr, Woodard, then-Councilman Jermaine Wright and Glasper, Flores was given a $36,000 per year contract as the city’s economic development consultant in which he was chartered to interest businesses into opening operations in, or relocating to, Adelanto. Pointedly, the city’s contract with Flores did not prohibit him from working for any of those businesses he succeeded in luring into the city. When many of those businesses turned out to be ones involved in the production or marketing of marijuana as a complement to the city council majority’s strategy of liberalizing the city’s zoning codes, permitting processes and regulations to transform Adelanto in the cannabis capital of California, the matter came to the interest of federal authorities. By early 2017, agents with the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and investigators with the Securities and Exchange Commission were closely monitoring developments in Adelanto. Among those investigators’ foci was the manner in which Flores was operating, and whether his acceptance of money from entrepreneurs setting up cannabis-related enterprises in Adelanto included his providing a portion of that money to any or all four of the council members – Kerr, Woodard, Wright and Glasper – who were championing or supporting the establishment of those marijuana-involved businesses.
Meanwhile, sensing that something improper was afoot, then-City manager Cindy Herrera, who had been elevated into the city manager’s post from her long-held position as city clerk by the Kerr-led council, suspended Flores from the economic development consulting post he held in January 2017 while Kerr was laid up from a motorcycle accident. Immediately upon his recovery the next month, Kerr, who was unabashedly in favor of the marijuanification of Adelanto and the economic shot in the arm he insisted getting in on the ground floor of cannabis commercialization in California represented, moved to fire Herrera, who deftly resigned as city manager and reassumed her post as city clerk. Kerr reestablished Flores as the city’s economic development consultant, doubling his remuneration to $72,000 annually, and thereafter doubling down on the city’s wooing of cannabis-related businesses and the fast-tracking of their applications at City Hall. Using Flores as a cudgel, Kerr, Woodard and Wright pressed city employees to suspend regulations, carry out token inspections of cannabis-related operations, waive fees and tailor the city’s zoning codes to allow the districts where such businesses would be allowed to exist to include properties previously outside the marijuana operation compatible zones that were being purchased at rock-bottom prices by applicants for cannabis-related operational permits. Simultaneously, Kerr, Woodard and Wright were ordering the terminations of any city employees who in any way inhibited the establishment of marijuana-involved businesses in the city.
After closely studying the circumstance and coming to a determination that the terms of his contract with the city essentially allowed Flores to legally take in money from those entrepreneurs setting up cannabis-related operations in the city and that his status as a contractor made conflict of interest law applicable to city employees inapplicable to him, the U.S. Attorney’s Office instructed the FBI to intensify its focus on the city’s elected leadership, Kerr, Woodard and Wright in particular, and indications that they were the recipients of kickbacks from any of the legions of the business dealing in marijuana that were being licensed or permitted to operate in Adelanto. In November 2017, the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office moved against Wright, who had accepted from an undercover FBI agent posing as an applicant for a marijuana distribution permit $10,000 in marked bills in exchange for an agreement to protect the business from the city’s regulators and code enforcement division.
Even in the face of what befell Wright, who in January 2018 was removed from his post as councilman because his continued incarceration by federal officials resulted in his having failed to attend regularly scheduled meetings of the council for more than 60 days, Kerr and Woodard continued to push for the accelerated approval of permits for cannabis-related businesses, creating a firestorm of controversy when they orchestrated the suspension of then-City Manager Gabriel Elliott because he was dragging his feet in facilitating those approvals. In May 2018, with Elliott yet suspended but still on the city payroll after five months, the council brought in former Army Colonel and Hesperia Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Brad Letner to serve as city manager. The next month, following an election campaign in which dozens of owners of cannabis-related businesses supported her, Joy Jeannette, an ally of Kerr and Woodard, emerged victorious in a three-way race in the special election to replace Wright. Shortly after Jeannette was sworn in to office, the council terminated the yet-suspended Elliott, fired Letner and chose Flores to serve as interim city manager. Less than a month later, Flores fired Herrera as city clerk, evening the score with her over her 2017 suspension of him. In October, a month before the election in which Kerr and Woodard were standing for reelection, the council removed the interim from Flores’ title, making him full fledged city manager.
In November, both Kerr and Woodard were soundly defeated in their bids for reelection. Glasper, who was sadly in the full throes of dementia, did not seek reelection. Thus, overnight, the five-member council was filled out with a new majority – Mayor Gabriel Reyes and council members Stevevonna Evans and Gerardo Hernandez. They joined Councilman Ed Camargo, who had been at odds with the Kerr, Woodard and Wright majority during most of their three year run together as the council’s ruling coalition. With the defeat of Kerr and Woodard, Jeannette essentially became at once a non-entity.
Without Kerr and Woodard to protect him, Flores found himself in a tenuous position. Nevertheless, the newly composed council elected not to act hastily, choosing to keep him in place and not take precipitous action that might redound to their, and the city’s detriment. On Monday February 11, in what seemed like a throwback to the Kerr regime, Flores put Community Safety Manager and lead code enforcement officer Steve Peltier on administrative leave. The move came a week after Peltier led a raid on an illegal cannabis-related operation in the city. During the last year of Kerr’s tenure as mayor, he had been gunning to fire Peltier, largely or even solely because Peltier was insistent about continuing to carry out exacting inspections in connection with the permitting process for cannabis-related businesses.
Whether the suspension of Peltier triggered the council’s action on Wednesday is not publicly known.
The item relating to Flores’ suspension was not included in the agenda for Wednesday’s regular meeting of the city council, which by law is posted at least 72 hours prior to the meeting. In the case of the announcement of the action relating to Flores, it was represented as an “emergency walk-on” item, relating to an exigent circumstance that allows an elected body to proceed on a matter without the standard 72-hour notice to the public.
As is routinely the case, prior to the public portion of the meeting, the council adjourned into a closed session. When it emerged from that executive session, which had been conducted out of the presence, sight and earshot of the public, an announcement of the action to suspend Flores with pay was made. The council and City Attorney Victor Ponto cited no grounds for the suspension.
Today, Councilwoman Stevevonna Evans told the Sentinel that Flores “is on paid administrative leave pending an investigation. It is possible Jessie can come back. I don’t know how long this will take. We’re hoping for a speedy investigation and resolution. It depends on how deep it has to go. It may take longer.”
Evans said that for now “Socorro Cisneros will serve as the acting city manager. It is premature for now” she said, to talk about officially replacing Flores as city manager. “He is still our city manager. If it [the investigation’s conclusion] comes back good, he will continue to be our city manager. Like with any other of our employees, I am always hoping for the best outcome. I like to think we have good people on our team. It is up to what the investigator says.”
Evans said she was not at liberty at present to discuss publicly what issue was being dealt with in the investigation. She indicated, however, that the crux of the matter will not remain secret.
“The public will know one way or another, no matter what the outcome of the investigation is,” she said.
Evans indicated that whatever precipitated the suspension had only recently come to the attention of the council, and that the suspension item was not withheld from the agenda to keep Flores in the dark to prevent him from secreting information out of City Hall or to purge his hard drive or shred city files.
“Having to take the action was an immediate thing,” Evans said. “That’s why it was an emergency walk-on item. It was not something that I knew of days before Wednesday. It was, as far as I know, a decision made on Wednesday.”
Cisneros is most widely known in local circles as a Democratic Party activist who vied unsuccessfully against Republican Jay Obernolte in the 33rd Assembly District last year.
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