Adelanto City Manager Jessie Flores’ effort to head off a round of bad publicity in January has boomeranged on him and other city officials, as the woman he hired for that task is now seeking $30,000 in compensation after that task proved to be too much for her and she was shown the door less than a month later. Now, the secrets that the city shared with her in the hope that she would help to keep them under wraps are on the brink of being exposed as she is threatening to take the city to court.
In January, Derek Stevens, who was then a member of the City of Adelanto’s code enforcement division, agreed to speak before a newly formed citizens interest and informational access group, Adelanto News, that had been formed by Adelanto resident Tonya Edwards. When the group convened for the first time, a handful of city business owners, residents interested in civic affairs, a few city employees and Mayor Gabriel Reyes along with Councilman Gerardo Hernandez, both of whom had been elected in November, were in attendance.
Reyes had displaced former Mayor Richard Kerr and Hernandez had replaced former Councilman John Woodard as a consequence of the November election. A roiling issue in November had been the aggressive courting of the commercial cannabis industry that had taken place during Kerr’s regime, which had been ushered in with the 2014 election when Kerr had replaced former Mayor Cari Thomas, Woodard had ousted former Councilman Steve Baisden and Charley Glasper had defeated former Councilman Charles Valvo.
Citing the consideration that the city had declared a state of fiscal emergency in 2013 and that it remained in a precarious position in which seeking bankruptcy protection was considered an option, Kerr, Woodard and then-Councilman Jermaine Wright, with the lukewarm support of Glasper, sought to jumpstart the local economy by embracing what they accurately predicted would be the liberalization of California law regarding the availability of marijuana. Presciently, Kerr, Woodard and Wright anticipated the 2016 passage of Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which legalized the use of marijuana for its intoxicative effect. Building on the long-in-place provision of California law, the Compassionate Use Act which had been passed by California’s voters with their approval of Proposition 215 in 1996 allowing medical marijuana to be sold in the state, the council majority sought to permit medical marijuana dispensaries to flourish in the city. This ran counter to the policies of 22 of San Bernardino County’s 24 cities, which banned the sale of marijuana for any purpose. At that point, only Needles was allowing marijuana clinics to set up operations within its city limits. By getting in on the ground floor of the approaching marijuana boom, Kerr, Woodard and Wright reasoned, Adelanto would be positioned to become host to a lucrative industry and perhaps even become the marijuana capital of California. With the imposition of taxes on the marijuana to be sold within its jurisdiction, Adelanto would create a revenue stream that would cure the city’s financial ills.
When the city through open its gates to allow a crush of marijuana entrepreneurs in, however, very little in the way of tax dollars materialized. That was in large measure because at Kerr, Woodard and Wright’s insistence, both the community development and code enforcement divisions were ordered to stand down, waive the fees the marijuana growers and retailers were supposed to pay to obtain their permits and sign off on the granting of those businesses’ occupancy and operating permits without carrying out inspections. When pressed on why these regulations were being ignored, Kerr, Woodard and Wright insisted that facilitating development was a priority and fastidiously adhering to the rules might discourage those willing to invest in the city’s future. A specter of suspicion hung over the city as a result, with many believing that Kerr, Woodard and Wright, and perhaps even Glasper, were receiving kickbacks from the the marijuana project proponents. Those suspicions were confirmed when in November 2017, the FBI arrested Wright and he was charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office with accepting a $10,000 bribe from the owner of a marijuana distribution business applicant in exchange for an assurance that he would shielding that business from city regulations. The business owner was in fact an undercover FBI agent. Subsequently, in what was a ruse to allay suspicions that extended to them, Kerr and Woodard sought to create a specialized cannabis task force that was separated out from the city’s code enforcement division, and which they maintained would ensure all city regulations were met. There choice for that assignment was Derek Stevens, whom Kerr and Woodard made directly anserable to them, bypassing the head of the code enforcement division, Steve Peltier. Indeed, Peltier had gotten on Kerr and Woodard’s bad side by refusing to have the code enformcement dvision back off of the regulation of new cannabis entrepreneurships in Adelanto. After they installed Stevens in the role of the city’s marijuana business regulator, Peltier was instucted, in no uncertain terms, that he and the rest of the code enforcment division would no longer have enforcement authority over cannabis-related businesses.
In June 2018 in an election corresponding with California’s primary election, Joy Jeannette, who was Kerr and Woodard ally, prevailed in the race to replace Wright on the council after his incarceration necessitated his removal. Able to count on Jeannette’s vote, Kerr and Woodard were able to reassert their vice-grip on the city, at which point they promoted another of their allies, Jessie Flores, into the city manager’s post, elevating him from his position as contract economic development consultant.
Despite their hold on City Hall, Kerr and Woodard had fallen out of favor with the city’s residents, and in November, they were defeated. Glasper, who was at that point in the beginning stages of dementia, was convinced by his family members not to seek reelection. With the election of Reyes and Hernandez, along with Stevevonna Evans, the Kerr regime ended.
Thus, in January, at the maiden Adelanto News forum, Stevens was asked point blank about the city’s headlong rush toward a cannabis-based economy and whether the revenue stream that Kerr, Woodard and Wright had confidently predicted would prove the city’s financial salvation had materialized. Steven did not sugarcoat it, responding that there was no database or clearinghouse for information or statistics relating to the city’s nascent cannabis industry. At best he said, the information, what little there was of it, was haphazardly “scattered throughout different city departments.”
The oversight of the city’s cannabis-related businesses lay with him, he said, as did the enforcement authority pertaining to those businesses. Of the 32 businesses licensed and permitted to traffic in marijuana consisting of the ones with certificates of occupancy and operating cleanance, Stevens said, only half or fewer were actually paying taxes. He said a flood of some 150 other applicants were waiting to receive licenses.
Based on past occurrences, a good number of those who had applied for licenses are likely to be operating without the permits in hand. None of those are paying taxes.
Flores remained closely aligned with Kerr and Woodard and was yet attempting to facilitate the cannabis-related business applicants in league with them. When he heard what Stevens had disclosed during the Adelanto News forum, he was furious. Intemperately, he moved to fire Stevens.
The matter was even more complicated than that, however. Derek Stevens’ father was Mike Stevens, the city’s contract communications director. Figuring that blood was thicker than water, he cast about to find another contract communications director, one he could count upon to tell his side of the story and paint Derek Stevens in a negative light. He turned to Michelle Van Der Linden, who for nine years from 2005 until 2014 had been the City of Chino’s public information officer and from 2017 until earlier that month a spokesperson for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.
He installed Van Der Linden as the city’s new spokeswoman, conferring upon her a contract by which she was to be paid at $95 per hour, working 8:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Flores did so without getting clearance from the city council to do so. He then terminated the contract with Mike Stevens. Shortly thereafter, it dawned on Flores that he had made a mistake. With Stevens no longer employed by the city, Flores did not have the leverage to keep him from disclosing even more than he already had. To buy his silence, he then hastily concluded a termination agreement with Derek Stevens, which included a $30,000 payment, which he again made without clearing the action with the city council
When the check to Derek Stevens was included in the city payment register to be approved by the city council at the February ? Meeting with the reason for the disbursement listed as “confidential,” Van Der Linden was hit with the first controversy in her tenure as the city’s spokeswoman. When she was inundated with inquiries as to what was going on, she froze, and made no response to the inquiries. Rather than defuse the situation, this worsened it. Shortly thereafter, when the members of the city council got wind of the arrangement Flores had made in extending Van Der Linden a $197,600 per year contract without their approval, compounded by her inability to even marginally detract from the controversy the city found itself in with Derek Stevens, they moved to rescind the contract. Under state law, a contract with a public agency is not binding until it is ratified by a vote of its governing board, as in this case, the Adelanto City Council
Van Der Linden, whose nine-year tenure as the public information officer with the City of Chino should have brought her up to speed with regard to the enforceability of public contracts, nevertheless filed a claim against Adelanto over the matter. It is her contention that the two checks she received for a total of $11,400 to cover her three weeks on the job with Adelanto is a slight to her and her talents as a professional. She is demanding the city pay her $30,000. If the city does not come across with the $30,000, Van Der Linden is threatening to take the city to court, a forum in which she will be able to publicly reveal a multitude of embarassing secrets she picked up while she was serving in the capacity of city spokeswoman.
At its March 27 meeting, the Adelanto City Council went into closed session to discuss with the city attorney “anticipated exposure to litigation” related to “two potential cases,” one of which pertains to Van Der Linden. Upon its return from that discussion, the city attorney stated, without any further clarification regarding the resolution of the claim, “Unanimous direction was given to city staff.”