Special Politics Report: A Story About a Conflict, a Councilman and … – Voice of San Diego

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan has shined a bright light on Jesus Cardenas and his sister, Andrea Cardenas, and their involvement with local cannabis retailer, Harbor Collective, which has a shop in Barrio Logan.

That light now may bring renewed scrutiny to an urgent push San Diego City Councilman Stephen Whitburn made in 2021 and early 2022 to loosen regulations on cannabis retailers.

It’s a story of how hard it is even for powerful city officials to muscle in big changes to city law and it’s a story of how tense it can still get to negotiate cannabis regulations. It’s a story, also, about that year of public meetings happening over Zoom and how bizarre they could get.

That year: Jesus Cardenas was Whitburn’s chief of staff in 2021, the year prosecutors say he conspired to apply for, and collect, a forgivable loan of $176,227 from the Covid-era Paycheck Protection Program. The federal government offered the program, which essentially sent billions in grants to businesses that kept their employees on payroll while the government shit down the economy to contain the pandemic.

Stephan alleges that the Cardenas siblings claimed Harbor Collective’s 34 employees as their own and then used the money for personal expenses including a $33,500 loan Andrea Cardenas made to her own campaign for City Council in Chula Vista.

That year, 2021, is also the year Jesus Cardenas disclosed on his Form 700 that he had received $10,000 or more in personal income from Harbor Collective, Blue Water Government Affairs, a cannabis lobbying group and March and Ash, another cannabis retailer.

And 2021 is the year that Whitburn began a furious push to loosen the city’s regulations on cannabis retailers. The new rules would them to be located closer to churches, playgrounds, libraries, child care centers, residential care facilities, schools and homes. The city had prohibited cannabis outlets to be within 1,000 feet of those places and Whitburn wanted to eliminate the separation for playgrounds, churches and libraries and lower it to 600 feet for schools, child care facilities and other youth centers.

The move would have aligned city laws with state minimum guidelines. And vastly increased the locations where retailers could operate, but it would not have increased the number of retailers allowed. The city had a cap on the number of cannabis retailers that could operate but it wasn’t close to hitting that because so few spaces were available with all the restrictions. The measure could have helped another 12 outlets or so find a suitable and compliant space to operate.

Whitburn was anxious to get the changes done. His term as chairman of the City Council’s Land Use and Housing Committee was expiring and he was unlikely to get that job again. That’s because on Dec. 6, 2021, City Councilmembers chose a new City Council president, Sean Elo-Rivera. Whitburn had opposed Elo-Rivera and supported the previous leader, Jen Campbell.

He had only a few days left as chair of the Land Use and Housing Committee.

It would first need to go to the Planning Commission: On Dec. 9, the Planning Commission got his proposal. Some Planning Commission members were sympathetic to it and to the need for the city to combat the plague of black-market cannabis options that still vent some of the demand for the drug, depriving the city of the opportunity to regulate and tax it. But they heard an outcry from commenters about the lack of public outreach for the changes. The new rules had not had a hearing in front of the Community Planners Committee, a sort of umbrella group of all the city’s community planning groups.

Even representatives of the cannabis retailer March and Ash said they were surprised by and uncomfortable with the process Whitburn was leading.

Jacob O’Neil, then Whitburn’s director of policy, presented the new changes to the Planning Commission. Then he got a question from Matthew Boomhower, one of the Planning Commissioners.

Boomhower had noticed that Whitburn was planning to present the changes to the City Council’s Land Use and Housing Committee that afternoon. What was the point of the Planning Commission meeting if Whitburn was already determined to ask his colleagues to adopt the changes the Planning Commission was only hearing for the first time then?

Did O’Neil and his boss, Whitburn, just see the Planning Commission as a rubber stamp?

“I don’t think you’re a rubber stamp. If you guys had an issue, we would just cancel the afternoon Land Use Committee, if it came to that point, and that was your request, and you didn’t want to move forward, or there was an issue and it continued,” he said.

The Planning Commission did continue it to their February 2022 meeting. But O’Neil’s pledge didn’t hold.

That afternoon, Whitburn and O’Neil presented it to the City Council committee. Whitburn choked up as he told the story of two community members he had met who had found comfort with cannabis as they battled terminal diseases.

“Their words have had a profound and lasting impact on me. That is what drives this for me,” he said. “We shouldn’t make access to cannabis more difficult than it needs to be and there’s no reason San Diego should be more restrictive than the state’s guidelines especially when voters in every Council district voted in favor of cannabis legalization with Proposition 64, which included the guidelines with which we would be aligning.”

And, despite the Planning Commission’s reluctance to move it forward without more community engagement, and, despite O’Neil’s pledge that it would not go to the Council yet, and despite the commitment they made to take it to neighborhood groups, Whitburn made a motion to approve the changes so they could go to the full City Council.  

None of his colleagues, though, seconded it. There was a moment when he said he suspected nobody was going to second it but he asked if that was really the case. After an uncomfortable silence, he gave up.

The matter made its way back to the Planning Commission on Feb. 3, 2022. O’Neil went back. This time, asked the Planning Commission to continue it.

Boomhower agreed but wanted a word.

“When you were here last time, we straight up asked you: If we didn’t take action on this item or if we continued it, if it was still going to be heard that afternoon as scheduled at council committee and you told us no, absolutely not. We would not move this forward in any way without planning commission approval,” Boomhower said, over the Zoom meeting as they all watched. “And yet, there I was listening to Council committee that afternoon with the councilmember in his role as chair still advancing this issue.”

He kept going.

“If you try to go around Planning Commission on this, I will do everything in my power as a Planning Commissioner and citizen to make you regret that decision … I don’t know if that was a misstep, a miscommunication, an attempt because he knew he might not be chair anymore to try to get this thing in front of the committee while he was still setting the comm agenda and I don’t care,” he said.

O’Neil did not like that. He later sent city staff a request for Boomhower’s email address.

“He made inaccurate statements about me personally last meeting and I want clarification,” he wrote to Sabrina Custer, the secretary of the Planning Commission.

Within a few months, Boomhower suddenly and inexplicably found his position on the Planning Commission in jeopardy. Despite his support from Elo-Rivera and other Councilmembers, but definitely not Whitburn, Mayor Todd Gloria was not interested in re-appointing Boomhower to what had been seen as an normal and expected second term.

It is unusual for Planning Commision members not to get a second term. After an outcry from supporters, Boomhower got his.

All of it though was a sign of the urgency Whitburn had attached to the change in cannabis regulations and his frustration when the change fizzled. The Council ultimately decided that the change should wait until a new equity study and program was implemented to ensure the people most hurt by the war on drugs could benefit now that this drug was legal. That program received a grant from the state but is now in danger of fizzling itself without the “infrastructure” for equity being put in place as Council President Elo-Rivera put it.

The explanation: Whitburn’s office sent over a few comments about why he pushed the measure so hard and why he ultimately abandoned it.

“The Councilmember proposed changes to the cannabis regulations in the City of San Diego due to his long history of fighting for access to cannabis. He believed the structures and operational standards for cannabis outlets, originally developed for medical collectives, needed to be updated after the passage of Proposition 64,” wrote Bridget Naso, Whitburn’s spokeswoman.

I asked how involved Jesus Cardenas had been in the push for the loosening of regulations on cannabis outlets given his disclosed income from cannabis industry professionals and the new revelation that he had allegedly actually claimed dozens of cannabis employees as his own that same year. Public officials in general cannot be involved in any public decision that they have a financial interest in but as chief of staff, it’s hard to see how Cardenas was not involved in this one.

“Given the circumstances in which he finds himself our office will refrain from publicly commenting on his past employment,” Naso wrote.

If you have any ideas or feedback for the Politics Report, send them to scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org.

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