Using Virus’s Impact On City’s Revenue Stream As A Pretext, City Manager Sacks Whistleblower

Utilizing the coronavirus crisis as a pretext, Adelanto City Manager Jessie Flores this week laid off an employee whose whistleblowing activity over the last three years played a contributory role in ending the tenure of the ruling coalition on the council that was voted out of office in 2018 and which has greatly complicated Flores’ function and that of the city council over the last year.
Amber Tisdale, a code enforcement officer, was one of three city employees who Flores laid off on Tuesday, action Flores said was taken in conjunction with a further reduction of contract consultants working in various capacities at City Hall in what was represented as a move necessitated by an anticipated 20 percent reduction of revenue coming into the city.
Flores and members of the city council have some degree of animus toward Tisdale.
In 2014, Rich Kerr, John Woodard and Charles Glasper were elected in a clean sweep that displaced, respectively, Mayor Cari Thomas and councilmen Charles Valvo and Steve Baisden. In short order, Kerr and Woodard joined with former Councilman Jermaine Wright in pushing the city toward legalizing the cultivation of medical marijuana in the city’s industrial zones and then later permitting marijuana dispensaries to proliferate in the 53-square mile and 34,000-population city as a means of generating revenue in the municipality which had in mid-2013 declared it was in a state of fiscal emergency, a step preparatory toward filing for bankruptcy.
To lesser and greater degrees, city staff resisted or cooperated with Kerr’s stated vision of getting Adelanto in on the ground floor of the coming marijuanification of California that began in earnest with the passage of Proposition 64 in 2016, which legalized the sale of marijuana for its intoxicative effect.
The perception grew, even among many of the city staff who accepted that cannabis legalization was legitimate, that Kerr, Woodard and Wright were engaged in bribe-taking from the more aggressive members of the dozens of cannabis-related business applicants who had permits pending at City Hall. Over a roughly three-and-a-half year period, City Manager Jim Hart, former City Engineer/Public Works Director/interim City Manager Tom Thornton, City Attorney Todd Litfin, Senior Management Analyst Mike Borja, Conservation Specialist Belen Cordero, Public Works Superintendent Nan Moore, former City Clerk/City Manager Cindy Herrera, former City Attorney Julia Sylva, former City Attorney Curtis Wright, interim City Manager Brad Letner, Information Technology Supervisor Ben Pina, contract City Engineer Wilson So, Assistant City Engineer Aaron Mower, Code Enforcement Officer Roman Edward De La Torre, Code Enforcement Officer Gregory Stephen Watkins, Senior Planner Mark De Manincor; public works division employee Jose Figueroa, City Attorney Ruben Duran and City Manager Gabriel Elliott either departed from the city on their own accord because they had misgivings about the pay-for-play ethos that dominated the cannabis-related business licensing process in Adelanto or were shown the door because they were not on board with the then-council majority’s agenda to transform Adelanto into the marijuana capital of California.
The city’s code enforcement division, led by Public Safety Director/Chief Code Enforcer Steve Peltier, earnestly sought to carry out its function, meaning doing timely and full inspections of new construction and operations, including cannabis-related businesses. Those efforts came amid orders from Kerr, Wright and Woodard, relayed through then-Economic Development Director Jessie Flores, for the code enforcement division to stand down. The code enforcement department’s general defiance of those orders was not welcomed by Kerr. In November 2017, Wright was arrested by the FBI and charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office with accepting a bribe from an undercover FBI agent posing as a cannabis distribution business applicant who had given Wright $10,000 in return for Wrights assurance the applicant’s business would not be interfered with by city regulators. The revelations attending Wright’s arrest clued Kerr and Woodard into the degree to which city employees and others were betraying those driving the marijuana legalization effort to local, state and federal authorities. This intensified rather than curtailed Kerr’s and Woodard’s push to purge City Hall of employees they deemed disloyal to their effort to transform Adelanto onto a marijuana-based economy, and more sackings of city employees ensued. With the assistance of Joy Jeannette, who in a special election in June 2018 to replace Wright on the city council was voted into office following a campaign defrayed by large infusions of political cash put up by cannabis-related business applicants, Kerr and Woodard established Flores as city manager.
There was a growing sentiment in the community that Kerr and Woodard were corruptly militating to carry out the bidding of the cannabis-related business applicants receiving preferential treatment at City Hall, fueled in large measure by Wright’s arrest and prosecution as well as an FBI raid on Kerr’s home. Moreover, Flores’ initial hiring by the city had been to serve as a consulting economic development director, by which terms he was not considered a city employee, per se, such that he was not subject to the same conflict-of-interest restrictions applicable to municipal employees. His contract with the city left him at liberty to seek employment and receive money from those businesses he was seeking to convince to set up shop in Adelanto. Thus, built into Flores’ original arrangement with the city was his ability to legally receive money from the dozens of cannabis-related businesses seeking permits and licenses to operate in the city, a perfect opportunity for the conveyance of payoffs to a city official from those companies. There were suggestions, never confirmed publicly, that Flores was sharing money provided to him by the applicants for cannabis-related business licenses in Adelanto with Kerr and Woodard. One report was that Wright had not been cut in on this deal, which had resulted in him setting out on his own to seek bribes and kickbacks, which ultimately led to his arrest and prosecution.
Just as had occurred four years previously, there was a clean sweep in the 2018 election, with Kerr and Woodard soundly defeated in the polling, and Glasper, who was sadly in the throes of dementia, having been persuaded against seeking reelection. Replacing Kerr as mayor was Gabriel Reyes; Woodard and Glasper were supplanted by Stevevonna Evans and Gerardo Hernandez, following an election in which all three touted themselves as reformist candidates.
After the election and their swearing in, Reyes, Evans and Hernandez were briefed by Flores, who convinced them that the city’s financial situation remained precarious, and that the best prospect for the city’s economic recovery was to stay the course that Kerr, Woodard and Wright had charted in creating a marijuana-friendly local business strategy that included not just cultivation facilities, but cannabis-product manufacturing concerns, medical marijuana dispensaries and pot shops akin to liquor stores where those seeking to purchase the drug for recreational purposes could do so. Rather than firing Flores, as they had implied they would do during their reform-themed campaigns, they kept him in place. Empowered, Flores took a run at Peltier, who had never desisted in his efforts to ensure that if the businesses involving marijuana cultivation, processing, distribution or sales were approved that they would meet the inspection, safety and operational criteria the public had been assured would be maintained to protect the community. In February 2019, Flores suspended Peltier, but with all eyes on what was occurring and elements of the public perceiving that the graft that had enveloped Kerr, Woodard and Wright was similarly overriding the judgment of Reyes, Evans, Hernandez and Jeannette, Peltier was restored into his post in April of last year.
As one of the code enforcement officers serving under Peltier who had then gone on to become his administrative assistant, Amber Tisdale was among those who had proved to be the bane of Kerr’s, Woodard’s and Wright’s existence. A report from a highly credible source was that Tisdale had provided information to the FBI during that phase of its operation that had been focused on Kerr, Woodard, Wright and Flores. Subsequently, following the 2018 election and the elevation of Reyes, Evans and Hernandez to the city council, reports were yet circulating that Tisdale had remained in contact with the FBI.
Based upon treatment she was subjected to while functioning in her role as a code enforcement officer, Tisdale filed a legal action against the city, alleging workplace harassment. That matter has yet to be adjudicated.
Because Tisdale is still considered to be a thorn in Flores’ side, as well as someone with a close view of municipal operations that might reflect poorly on Reyes, Evans, Hernandez and Jeanette as well, Flores’ move to include her among the layoffs that occurred this week and which were justified as an outgrowth of the coronavirus pandemic is regarded with some degree of suspicion.
One city employee said “Saying this is because of COVID-19 is a lame excuse. Amber is currently suing the city for harassment. Why layoff three employees only? Why not layoff off everyone due to COVID? Why lay off employees who have attorneys, the employees who have already spoken to the FBI, the honest employees?”
The city has been hit with at least 14 lawsuits by city employees terminated or subjected to treatment they maintain was unjustified which they characterize as an outgrowth of their unwillingness to suspend appropriate protocols or legal and procedural requirements in order to meet the demands by Flores or various members of the city council that businesses be granted operating permits irrespective of whether they are compliant with city codes and regulations. In defending those lawsuits, the city has already paid its attorneys more than $1 million, and continues to pay money for that purpose out of its general fund.
The city to date has settled cases or claims brought by Adam Watkins for $145,000, Ben Pina for $125,000, Jose Figueroa for $75,000, Ibrahim Abduld for $55,000 and Derek Stevens for $30,000. Nan Moore, Belen Cordero, Mike Borja, Mark De Manincor, Cindy Herrera, Gabriel Elliott, Steve Peltier, Greg Watkins, Amber Tisdale, Apolonio Gutierrez and Edward Del Torre still have cases pending against the city.
The city last year also paid a $3.8 million settlement to the ownership of the no-longer-extant High Desert Mavericks over the city’s decision to evict that minor league baseball team from the city-owned stadium in January 2016, after the team had been a fixture at that location for a quarter of a century.
-Mark Gutglueck 

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