Cannabis Conflicts Impact Council Vacancy Selection

The proliferation of marijuana dispensaries and a consequential and incidental circumstance of conflict in San Bernardino County’s smallest city became a factor in the determination of whom the city council settled on this week to fill out the vacancy within its ranks following the December 10 resignation of Clayton Hazlewood.
Hazlewood’s abrupt and unexplained departure left the council in something of a lurch. He had lodged a letter of resignation with the city just prior to its meeting on December 10. As it turned out, that day illness had felled Mayor Jeff Williams and Councilman Zachery Longacre. The council consists of seven members total, six councilors and the mayor. The mayor, who serves as the panel’s presiding officer, is not empowered to vote under normal circumstances. Given that Councilman Ed Paget, as vice mayor, would have needed to fill in as the presiding officer, the remaining voting members of the council – Tim Terral, Tona Belt, and Shawn Groundsmen – were not sufficient in number to form the four member quorum needed to make legally binding decisions for the city, and the meeting was adjourned until December 17, at which point the December 10 agenda was taken up, together with the addition of an item relating to accepting Hazlewood’s resignation. On December 17, the council made formal acceptance of Hazlewood’s departure and set the meeting of January 14 as the date upon which they would consider and designate who would serve out the remaining time on Hazlewood’s term.
Former Needles City Councilwoman Louise Evans, former Needles Councilwoman Ruth Musser-Lopez, Kirsten Carol Merritt, Shawn O’Brion, Robert Savant and Gerald “Jerry” Telles made application for the appointment.
Some had suggested that the council in making its selection should consider as a controlling factor the election results when Hazlewood had run successfully for the city council in 2016. In that race in which three positions were at stake, nine candidates had competed, with Belt finishing first with 583 votes or 16.93 percent, Gudmundson claiming 515 votes or 14.96 percent for second place and Hazlewood capturing third place with 484 votes or 14.06 percent. Finishing fourth had been Telles, with 431 percent or 12.52 percent, followed by Linda Kidd in fifth place with 398 votes or 11.56 percent and Musser-Lopez in sixth place with 350 votes or 10.17 percent. Finishing seventh, eighth and ninth in that race were, respectively, Tom Darcy, Tim Terral and John H. Wagner. The public consideration and discussion of that suggestion convinced Musser-Lopez to throw her support behind Telles. When the council met this week, on Tuesday, January 14, Musser-Lopez came forth to voice her belief that Telles, by virtue of his being the strongest finisher in the 2016 race behind Hazlewood now in the running, rendered him the logical choice to move into the council position and therefore merited him the appointment.
The council, however, dwelt at some length on the employer-employee relationship between Telles and Longacre. Longacre, who is a bartender, has a second job during daylight hours working at the marijuana dispensary in Needles owned by Telles.
On November 6, 2012, voters in Needles approved the adoption of Measure S, a marijuana business tax ordinance and authorizing the operation of medical marijuana dispensaries and the collection of a marijuana business tax of up to 10 percent of gross receipts. In December 2012, the Needles City Council set the marijuana business tax at the maximum 10 percent. Thereafter, a number of entrepreneurs began transacting business as marijuana purveyors in Needles, putting the city at the forefront of San Bernardino County cities with respect to allowing the sale of medical marijuana. In this way, Needles was positioned to get in on the ground floor of the social revolution brought about with the 2016 statewide passage of Proposition 64, The Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which made the use of marijuana for intoxicative effect legal and empowered cities to allow the sale of the drug for recreational purposes to take place. Before that occurred, however, in December 2014, with prospective marijuana operation applicants threatening to burgeon into the dozens, the city drew the line on the number of dispensaries it would allow, restricting the number to the five then functioning with fully legal permits.
Along with Adelanto, the one other city in San Bernardino County that liberalized its stance with regard to the sale of marijuana prior to 2016, Needles got in on the ground floor of the California marijuana boom. As such, the city council is in the position of making decisions on a frequent basis that have a potential impact on the business prospects of the city’s various marijuana-based operations.
There are circumstances which complicate this consideration. Mayor Williams’ brother works for one of the dispensaries established in the city. At one point, Councilman Terral’s wife was offered a job with one of the city’s dispensaries, but in the end, she elected not to go to work there because of the suggestion this would entail a conflict on her husband’s part whenever issues relating to cannabis commercial activity came before the city council.
Given Telles’s direct connection to the marijuana industry and the consideration that one of his employees, Longacre, is already a voting member of the council, the council as a whole on Tuesday decided to bypass Telles as a council candidate. The potential of conflict by having Telles and Longacre on the council, both because of their employer/employee relationship and their involvement in the marijuana sales business, was cited at the justification for rejecting Telles’s application.
The council instead voted to elevate Louise Evans to the council. In the 2018 Needles municipal election involving five candidates vying for three positions, Evans had finished fourth, with 486 votes or 18.56 percent. She was outdistanced by Paget, in first with 700 votes or 26.69 percent; Terral in second with 507 votes or 19.33 percent; and Longacre, who captured third place with 491 votes or 18.72 percent.
-Mark Gutglueck

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