Man on a Mission

LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has big — and controversial — plans for the beleaguered department

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 1/10/2019

Newly elected Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva began his shrievalty Dec. 3 when he was sworn in at East Los Angeles College following a vote counting process that lasted weeks after Election Day in a close race with incumbent Jim McDonnell. As the county’s 33rd sheriff, Villanueva has promised to “reform, rebuild and restore” the Sheriff’s Department.

Villanueva, 55, last served as a lieutenant and a watch commander at the department’s Pico Rivera Station. He worked for the department for more than 30 years before retiring in February.

Villanueva is LA’s first Democratic sheriff in 138 years and the first to speak fluent Spanish. He was an underdog candidate who defeated McDonnell with 52.8 percent of the ballots cast, ultimately receiving 1.3 million votes in a county of more than 10 million people, according to final results by the LA County Registrar-Recorder/Clerk’s Office. McDonnell, elected in a landslide in 2014, was the first incumbent sheriff to be unseated in an election in LA County in more than a century.

McDonnell’s predecessor Lee Baca resigned in disgrace in 2014 and was sentenced to three years in federal prison in 2017 for his role in obstructing an FBI investigation into corruption and deputies’ abuse of inmates in county jails. Dozens of deputies and former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka were also convicted in that scandal. Baca is currently out of jail while a three-judge panel from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals considers his appeal. Villanueva now says abuse of inmates in county jails “has almost disappeared,” and that the focus should be on inmate violence against jail personnel.

After pledging to kick federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents out of county jails, Villanueva’s voter base in the election included Latinos and progressives. At his swearing-in ceremony, he told his deputies that “the success of your career will be determined by how well you serve the community, not the political powers that be. Those days are over. We will not allow any divisive policies from outside LA or California dictate the way we do our job here in California. Our hard-working immigrant families shouldn’t have to wonder if we’re here to protect them or deport them.”

But now some progressive groups and others are concerned about a few of his other positions. For instance, he supports the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs’ (ALADS) lawsuit to block the release of a list of problem deputies known as the Brady List, which is now before the California Supreme Court. ALADS supported Villanueva’s campaign.

He also plans to limit the disciplinary role of two constitutional policing advisers. The LA Times editorial board wrote that Villanueva “has yet to make a convincing case that the real problem facing the Sheriff’s Department was too many deputies facing too much discipline, or that constitutional policing advisers were running amok,” and called on him to reconsider.

During his first week, Villanueva removed 18 high-ranking officials from their posts and told 500 other captains, commanders and lieutenants that he’s reviewing whether they will remain in their positions and that they should remove their rank insignia from their uniforms.

Villanueva recently spoke with the Pasadena Weekly about his priorities, what he plans to do differently from his predecessors and challenges facing the department.

Pasadena Weekly: What are your main priorities as the new LA County sheriff?

Sheriff Alex Villanueva: We’re converting our ‘Reform, Rebuild, Restore’ campaign slogan into an actual action plan. The first three days that I was actually at work … shows you the route I’m taking on that. On Tuesday, we did a leadership assessment for lieutenants and above. We did some leadership training. On Wednesday, we went to jail. We spent time doing an assessment of the ICE situation in our county jails and how we’re going to literally kick them out. On Thursday, we were working on the issue of body cam deployment.

What does it mean to the Latino community in Los Angeles to have a Latino sheriff who speaks fluent Spanish?

It’s important for them, and hopefully I can live up to their expectations of me. When any one group that has someone who’s a representative of that group enter into that leadership position, it’s always a good day. My mom’s side of the family is Polish, and I remember when John Paul II became pope, my grandma and my mom were walking a foot taller.

Do you support civilian oversight of the Sheriff’s Department? What should that ideally look like?

It has to be a partnership. The [state] constitution lays out that the oversight of the sheriff, per se, is the voters. And then from the operations standpoint, that’s where we’re going to work hand-in-hand with the oversight commission. I want them to be informed. I want them to have everything they need to be able to do their job effectively so I can make informed decisions based on their input. They represent stakeholders throughout the county.

How do you plan to reform the county jail system so there is less or no abuse of inmates?

It’s not just the abuse of inmates that’s the problem. That has almost disappeared. There are three elements to the problem of violence in our jails: the use of force from our personnel against inmates, the violence of inmate on inmate and the violence of inmates against staff. The outgoing sheriff focused solely on the force against inmates and forgot the other two. So we need to swing the pendulum back to the middle somewhere, where everyone can be in a safe environment in the jails, whether you’re an inmate, a civilian employee or a sworn deputy.

What should the Sheriff’s Department’s relationship with ICE look like?

They need to do their job and we need to not be involved in their federal immigration enforcement efforts. We want nothing to do with that. Our sole priority is providing public safety for all of LA County’s residents, regardless of immigration status. We have the largest undocumented population in the entire nation within our county, and public safety means the entire public. That includes them.

You had a large progressive voter base in this election, but now some progressives are worried about a few of your positions, such as limiting the disciplinary role of two constitutional policing advisers. Do you still plan to do that, and why is that a necessary step?

The individual one in particular that was involved in that, they went way beyond their mandate or their original intent of being constitutional policing advisers. They actually overrode the decisions of our own unit commanders and division chiefs, who are the ones who are imposing the discipline. That was not the intention of the entire program when it was set up. It’s something that looks nice on paper, and people unfortunately bought the idea hook, line and sinker that we were getting advice that was going to somehow put us in a better light in regards to the constitution, but what they did is they actually created a nightmare in terms of violating due process for employees and for the public as well. Now we have to undo some of that damage.

Do you still support ALADS’s lawsuit against releasing the Brady List, and if so, do you plan to compile a new list?

We want to have a list that’s accurate and fair, for sure. We’re going to use the Brady List as a starting point. We’re going to go through each and every case one by one, but ultimately the list itself is not the end game. The end goal is actually to make sure that those who provide testimony in court, who prepare written reports, who gather and submit evidence, that the process is not tainted or compromised so someone doesn’t end up being wrongfully convicted based on tainted testimony. That is the end game. To that end, we’re going to work very hard.

Where do you stand on deputy group tattoos?

I’m not going to tolerate a clique or any kind of mentality that goes from just having ink on your body to criminal behavior. That’s not acceptable. We’re looking at all of our options available to make sure that doesn’t happen. The problem with the tattoos and the cliques is one of unchecked hazing that went on for literally almost two decades. That was an outcome of that unchecked hazing. There was a failure of supervision and a failure of leadership, and we’re working hard to resolve that.

Do you see the Sheriff’s Department, under your command, doing anything differently in its relationships with municipalities such as Pasadena, as well as its role in international relations?

We’re like Grand Central Station for a lot of nations and a lot of the different immigrant groups. We want to have good, working relations with all 88 cities in the county. We provide constant law enforcement services to 42 of them, and we want to make sure we’re always a viable alternative for any city that’s in financial distress or is having difficulty with their own police department. We don’t want to take any police departments away. That’s not our goal by any means. We want them to be successful, but we’re a fallback option in case they have issues. That happens occasionally, especially when people get into hard financial situations. We can provide a more economical alternative for basic law enforcement services.

Is there anything you plan to do differently on the Mitrice Richardson case?

I’m very aware of that case, and we’re going to get to the bottom of what happened and what went wrong. I’m not satisfied with what we’ve done to date. The truth and reconciliation process is one of the first things we’re going to be addressing.

Can you tell me more about how you were discriminated against in terms of not being promoted in the Sheriff’s Department, and how do you change that culture in the department?

For the last almost 20 years, the department has been driven by cronyism. It was a political patronage system. If you didn’t fit the bill or, for example, if you were a minority, you were always limited to a very predetermined role in the organization. No matter what you did, how hard you worked or how much education you had, your future was already predetermined for you with a firm glass ceiling. I butted up against that glass ceiling my entire career. I said, ‘This is just unacceptable.’ I think every single employee has a right to play on a level playing field.
Can rights be wrong?

The Pasadena Republican Club sues the Western Justice Center and the city of Pasadena over an alleged violation of free speech

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 12/20/2018

A battle over the First Amendment is raging across the country, especially on college campuses. Republican clubs book controversial speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro or Steve Bannon, then liberal groups protest and the event is canceled. Conservatives say it is a violation of their free speech rights, and liberals say they have a right to prevent the institution they are affiliated with from giving speakers with hateful messages a platform to spread their discrimination.

That debate has come home to Pasadena.

The Claremont Institute’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence (CCJ), based at Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law, filed a complaint in federal district court on Nov. 28 on behalf of the Pasadena Republican Club (PRC) against the Western Justice Center (WJC) and the city of Pasadena.

PRC allege that WJC canceled their event at the last minute because of the scheduled speaker’s anti-same-sex marriage views. The civil rights complaint, filed in federal court, alleges political and religious discrimination and seeks declaratory and injunctive relief and unspecified monetary damages. It was filed by Anthony Caso, director of CCJ.

“The essence of the complaint is that they’ve taken public property and they’ve decided who can use it based upon political or religious viewpoint,” Caso said. “Take your pick; both are unconstitutional.”

According to the complaint, PRC President Lynn Gabriel signed a contract in early 2017 with then-WJC Executive Director Judith Chirlin, a retired LA Superior Court judge, to rent the Maxwell House in west Pasadena for the club’s next event on April 20, 2017, for a fee of $190. The Maxwell House, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and located just a few doors from the US Ninth District Court of Appeals, is owned by the city of Pasadena. The city leases the Maxwell House to WJC for $1 a month. PRC had held meetings at the Maxwell House before, featuring different speakers.

The Pasadena Republican Club was founded in 1884, two years before Pasadena incorporated as a city, making it the oldest continuously active Republican club in the United States. According to its website, the club is “dedicated to electing Republican candidates to federal, state and local office. [It] funds and operates the Republican [election] headquarters in Pasadena every two years.” The Western Justice Center is a nonprofit organization that “develops creative programs to teach students, teachers and members of the community ways to resolve conflict peacefully.”

In the complaint, Gabriel asserted that she informed Chirlin at that time that the speaker at the event would be Dr. John Eastman, chairman of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). NOM was formed in 2007 to promote the passage of Prop 8, the controversial 2008 ballot measure that eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry in California.

Eastman also previously served as the dean of Chapman University’s law school and was the founding director of CCJ, which is representing PRC in this lawsuit. He has argued many cases before the Supreme Court and engineered President Trump’s recent call to end birthright citizenship. At the Maxwell House event, he was planning to deliver a Supreme Court update.

According to the complaint, at 3:43 p.m. on April 20, 2017, less than three hours before Eastman’s talk was to begin at 6:30 p.m., Chirlin emailed Gabriel to cancel the event, writing, “While I knew that Prof Eastman was a professor and author, we learned just today that he is the President [sic] of the National Organization for Marriage. NOM’s positions on same-sex marriage, gay adoption, and transgender rights are antithetical to the values of the Western Justice Center. WJC works to improve campus climates with a special focus on LGBT bias and bullying. We work to make sure that people recognize and stop LGBT bullying. Through these efforts we have built a valuable reputation in the community, and allowing your event in our facility would hurt our reputation in the community.”

The complaint asserted that WJC’s contract required a disclaimer to be included on any publicity for the event that read, “The Western Justice Center/Maxwell House does not endorse the views expressed by this organization or its speakers,” a rule that Caso said PRC followed.

Caso said the last-minute cancelation caused several problems for PRC.

“The Pasadena Republican Club president had to scramble to find an alternate location for the event, and I’m amazed that they did so,” he said. “Then she had to stand out in front of the Maxwell House to redirect traffic to the University Club of Pasadena, the new location, so she never got to the event herself.”

The University Club charged PRC $500 and not all PRC members were able to make it to the new venue. The complaint stated that “attendance at the event at the University Club was one-third below average attendance.”

Elissa Barrett, WJC’s current executive director, declined to comment for this story.

“We are consulting with legal counsel and cannot make any further comment at this time,” Barrett wrote in an email in response to a request for comment from Chirlin.

Earlier, Barrett reportedly wrote in response to questions from Pasadena Now, “When this matter arose more than 18 months ago, we believed that a fair and mutual accommodation had been reached. We have heard nothing from the plaintiff since then. We are disappointed that the plaintiff chose not to contact us before pursuing litigation, especially given the centrality of conflict resolution to our mission. The Western Justice Center empowers people to resolve conflicts and to address forms of bias that often underlie those conflicts.”

Caso acknowledged that PRC did not try to contact WJC to resolve the situation before pursuing litigation but argued that they didn’t need to do so.

“There’s no requirement to contact,” Caso said. “Basically, what [WJC] did is they gave the money back for the contract, the $190. That’s all that they did. They didn’t apologize, they didn’t say they wouldn’t do it again, they didn’t open up the facility and they didn’t promise to obey the Constitution.”

Caso said the city is also responsible because it gives WJC “the authority to rent the [Maxwell House] out, but is not providing guidance or supervision at all. Just like the city can’t delegate it to an employee and not provide any oversight. It is city property, so the Western Justice Center is operating on express city authority as to how to do the rentals.”

On KPCC’s “AirTalk with Larry Mantle,” Eastman said that if the city were to rent the Maxwell House out as a public forum, “there’s no question constitutionally it would be required to lease it out without discriminating on the basis of viewpoint. The real question is, by signing a dollar-a-month lease, can it avoid those constitutional duties and pass the buck to a nonprofit organization to do the discriminating for it? I don’t believe it can do so.

“The Western Justice Center has some decisions it’s going to have to make,” he continued. “If they want to continue to discriminate on the basis of viewpoint, they can’t do that with sweetheart deals using publicly owned facilities. If they want to continue serving as an agent of the city, renting out this spectacular facility for community organizations’ meetings, then they have to comply with the Constitution just like the city does.”

PRC is seeking a declaration that WJC and the city of Pasadena “violated the free speech and religious rights of [PRC] and its members” and that they “acted with malice, oppression and wanton and intentional disregard for the law.”

PRC is also seeking an injunction prohibiting the city of Pasadena from “allowing [WJC] to decide which organizations may or may not hold events at city-owned property” and prohibiting the WJC or any of its agents from “discriminating against organizations in the use of city-owned facilities based on the viewpoint of the speaker or the religious viewpoint or affiliation of the speaker.”

PRC is also seeking damages for “emotional distress suffered by members of the [PRC]” and punitive damages against WJC for “action with malice, oppression and wanton disregard for the law in engaging political viewpoint and religious belief discrimination,” as well as attorneys’ fees.

“The main thing we’d like to see is that the Western Justice Center not have the opportunity to continue to violate the Constitution, that this go over to the city or some other mechanism so we can ensure that the Constitution gets obeyed,” said Caso. “One alternative of the relief that we’re asking for is that the court order Pasadena to take over the task of deciding who can and cannot use the property, rather than the Western Justice Center.”

No court hearings have been scheduled for the case yet, but Caso expects the first one to happen in January or February.

“We were just served [Monday, Dec. 3] and are reviewing the complaints,” Lisa Derderian, the city’s public information officer, wrote in an email in response to a request for comment from the city.

The complaint alleged that by waiting until the last minute to cancel PRC’s event, “Chirlin, acting on behalf of [WJC] and the city of Pasadena, sought to ensure that the event could not be held at all and to impose the maximum level of inconvenience for [PRC]. These actions constitute willful and wanton misconduct. As a retired California judge, Chirlin is presumably aware of the provisions of the United States Constitution and was therefore aware that the action she took on behalf of [WJC] was unconstitutional.”

Eastman said on “AirTalk” that WJC should have known better.

“The folks on the Western Justice Center board, including the executive director who did this, are judges or former judges,” Eastman told Mantle. “They ought to have known their constitutional obligations.
Turning the tables

Rep. Adam Schiff, incoming chair of the House Intelligence Committee, discusses the Democrats’ plans once they take control of the House of Representatives next month

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 12/13/2018

President Donald Trump’s political life will drastically change come Jan. 3 when Democrats take control of the House of Representatives in the 116th Congress. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), whose district includes part of Pasadena, will become the chair of the House Intelligence Committee. A former federal prosecutor, Schiff has vowed to follow up on the leads in the Russia investigation that Republicans ignored when they were the majority in the House.

The day after the election, Trump essentially fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replaced him with loyalist Matt Whitaker, who has criticized Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Schiff called Whitaker “Trump’s Roy Cohn,” a reference to the combative lawyer for both Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the communist witch hunts of the 1950s, and for Trump in the 1970s. Schiff wrote in a Washington Post op-ed on Nov. 12 that Whitaker’s appointment “represents the president’s most direct challenge yet to the rule of law. The new Democratic majority will protect the special counsel and the integrity of the Justice Department.”

On Nov. 18, Trump tweeted, “So funny to see little Adam Schitt [sic] talking about the fact that Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker was not approved by the Senate, but not mentioning the fact that Bob Mueller (who is highly conflicted) was not approved by the Senate!”

Special counsels do not need to be approved by the Senate, but attorneys general do, per the Constitution. Last week, Trump nominated former Attorney General William Barr to return to the position. Meanwhile, Mueller’s investigation is picking up speed with recent sentencing memos filed on Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former personal lawyer Michael Cohen.

“There’s a very real prospect that on the day Donald Trump leaves office, the Justice Department may indict him,” Schiff said Sunday on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “He may be the first president in quite some time to face the real prospect of jail time.”

Schiff recently spoke with the Pasadena Weekly to discuss the new power dynamic in Washington, how Democrats plan to hold the Trump administration accountable and what’s next for the Russia investigation.

Pasadena Weekly: What message do you think voters sent on Election Day?

Rep. Adam Schiff: They sent a message that they want to place a check and balance on this administration. They want Congress to be focused on bread and butter issues, like how families make ends meet and keeping the cost of health care within reason. But also that they don’t want this president to have unrestricted power, that he’s just too unstable and too inclined to tear up the foundations of our democratic institutions.

What are your main priorities when Democrats take control of the House, and what can they get done with control of just one branch?

Our first priority is going to be to offer a positive agenda for the country that addresses the economic changes that are going on, that makes sure more Americans have an opportunity to live the American Dream, that brings down the cost of prescription drugs. But I also think that we’re going to need to do oversight that has been lacking for the last two years. There’s not a great expectation that our legislative agenda will get through the Senate, but we do want to be able to show the country the priorities that we have if they entrust us with the full government in 2020. On the oversight side of things, there are numerable allegations of corruption and malfeasance within the administration. We’re going to have to prioritize; we aren’t going to be able to look into everything that has come to our attention. We’ll have to look at the most serious matters first. It’s everything from the ties between the Trump campaign and Russia to the president’s potential efforts to use the instruments of state power to censor the press by raising postal rates on Amazon to go after the Washington Post, to holding up the merger of CNN’s parent to punish CNN, to violations of the emolument clause. We just saw reports yesterday of how much the Saudis were spending at Trump hotels to curry favor with the Trump administration. There are a whole range of important oversight priorities.

What can Democrats, Republicans and the Trump administration work together on in the New Year?

The country could badly use an investment in infrastructure. That would be good for the economy, it would help put Americans back to work, it would certainly help repair a lot of our decaying roads and bridges and highways and renewable energy infrastructure and airports, and that ought to be completely nonpartisan. So that’s a fruitful area to work together. The president at times has indicated interest in working to bring the cost of prescription drugs down. If he’s willing to buck some of the people in his own administration to work with Democrats on it, we can find common ground there. There are any number of opportunities for us to get things done for the American people. I hope the president will be open to doing that.

What are some of the leads or witnesses in the Russia investigation that the Republicans refused to follow up on that you will follow up on come January?

One that I’m particularly concerned about is the allegations that the Russians were laundering money through the Trump Organization. We know the Trump Organization was lying about its efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, efforts that continued through the middle of 2016, and efforts in which the Trump Organization sought to enlist the help of the Kremlin and offer Putin a penthouse suite, reportedly, but we don’t know whether the financial ties are much broader than that. If the Russians were laundering money through the Trump Organization that would be powerful leverage they would have over the president of the United States. So that certainly is a priority. There are any number of investigative threads that we were pursuing when the Republicans abruptly ended their participation in the investigation, so we want to make sure the job is done with thoroughness.

Have you seen any indication that the acting attorney general has interfered with the Mueller investigation, and are you worried that Bill Barr will interfere if he is confirmed?

We have no visibility into what role Whitaker is playing, and that’s of grave concern. He auditioned for the part by bashing the Mueller investigation and talking about how he can secretly suffocate the investigation. We will work hard to expose any involvement that he has as long as he’s with the Justice Department. In terms of Barr, he’s made some concerning remarks about not only the Mueller team but also he’s given credence to the president’s efforts to prosecute his political rivals and reopen the Uranium One investigation. Those things are deeply concerning, but I don’t put Barr in the same category as Whitaker. Barr is plainly qualified and has already been attorney general; he was a fairly mainstream and conservative attorney general. Were it not for the concerning comments he’s made about the Mueller investigation and the Clinton investigation, I would have far fewer reservations. But these are things that need to be explored during his confirmation hearings.

What can Democrats do to protect the Mueller investigation?

Once we get the gavel, we’ll be able to bring Whitaker before Congress and demand to find out what role he has played in the Mueller investigation, whether he was given and is abiding by an ethics opinion from the Justice Department, whether he’s shared any information he has gleaned about the investigation with the president or the president’s lawyers. He’s going to have to answer all of those questions and more. We ought to take up and pass legislation to protect Mueller, but that’s something that the Senate majority leader has refused to do. We’re going to try to get that done as part of our final budget talks, but I don’t know how optimistic to be about that. We can certainly end the attacks on the integrity of the Justice Department and the FBI that have come out of the House Intelligence Committee during the Nunes period. That will stop in January.

Do you think Mueller is delaying submitting his final report to the Justice Department until the Democrats have taken control of the House in January, or is the investigation just ongoing? Will House Democrats use their subpoena power to try to force the Trump administration to make the report public, if it is suppressed?

I don’t think his timing is determined by the change in the majority. I think there are other factors at work that are influencing the timing, including potentially the appointment of Whitaker may have accelerated the timetable. There are certain things that we should be doing to assist the Mueller investigation, and the Republicans have refused. We will certainly have to take that up in January, that is, we will be making the interview transcripts of our witnesses [before the House Intelligence Committee] available to Mueller for consideration as to whether witnesses should be charged with perjury. That may or may not influence the timing of charging decisions with respect to some of the subjects of the investigation. In terms of whether the report will be made public, I think we ought to make as much public as possible. We should be as transparent as possible. This is simply too important to be swept under the rug. It’s going to be the responsibility of Congress to make sure there is a full accounting.

It seems like if any other president had done what we already know this president has done they would be impeached. What is it going to take to hold this president accountable? And have you seen or do you know of evidence that the president, his family members, or his inner circle have committed wrongdoing?

What we are seeing every day as the president continues to attack the Mueller investigation and dangle pardons in front of potentially cooperating witnesses or a harsh sentence for those who testify against him, is that he is willfully trying to interfere in the investigation and he’s doing it in broad daylight. The effect of that is to numb the public to just what a breach of the democratic norms of office we are seeing. Ultimately, for an impeachment to be successful it will need to be bipartisan, otherwise you might be able to impeach the president in the House but you’ll never be able to convict him in the Senate. What it will take is we will have to wait and see what Mueller reports. His conclusion and the evidence of that report would have to be sufficient to convince the country that the president’s conduct was so incompatible with the office that he needed to be removed. That’s a very high bar, and it’s properly a high bar under any circumstance because it’s an extraordinary remedy. It would require a great many Americans around the country to view the president’s conduct not through a partisan lens, but through the lens of whether what he’s doing is consistent with our Constitution. We simply have to wait and see what Mueller produces and then determine what the consequences should be.

What’s next for you? Are you going to run for president?

What’s next for me is really getting to work on the parts of this investigation the Republicans were unwilling to undertake and providing a check on this president. Whatever comes after that, I don’t know at this point. I’ve got more than enough on my plate as it is.
Going green

Pasadena officials will soon be accepting permit applications for commercial cannabis businesses

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 12/13/2018

Following the statewide legalization of recreational cannabis by California voters in 2016, Pasadena officials are finally ready to accept applications for permits for those who wish to operate legal commercial cannabis dispensaries in the city.

In June, Pasadena voters approved Measure CC, which lifted the city’s self-imposed ban on cannabis dispensaries, with nearly 60 percent of the vote. City officials put that measure on the ballot because they would have been preempted by a citizen-led ballot measure in November that proposed to allow current illegal operators to get legal permits.

“The Pasadena residents voted on rules and regulations to allow limited commercial cannabis in the city and approved a taxation process and percentage,” David Reyes, Pasadena’s director of planning and community development, wrote in an email to the Pasadena Weekly. “It took over a year to get the regulations established based on an evaluation of various other cities to establish best practices for our city. The whole process is a great story in terms of where we started and where we are.”

Selective, Regulated & Costly

The city’s final regulations, based on public input at several community meetings over the past year, will allow a total of six permits for retail cannabis dispensaries within city limits, with only one allowed in any given council district. The regulations also allow four permits for cultivation centers and four permits for testing labs within the city, for a total of 14 potential businesses. About 300 people attended a public meeting the city hosted on Nov. 13 to provide information about the upcoming application process.

The retail and cultivation locations will be allowed in commercial and industrial zones and must also be 600 feet away from K-12 schools, residential zones, libraries, parks, substance abuse centers and other cannabis retailers and cultivators. Smoking, ingesting or other consumption of cannabis onsite will be prohibited. Hours of operation will be limited to 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Sunday.

The regulations include other conditions, such as strictly controlled entrances with a buzz-in system, exterior signage standards and an advanced ventilation system. The retail space of any given dispensary will be limited to 15,000 square feet and cultivation space will be limited to 30,000 square feet.

Testing labs will only be allowed in zoning districts where laboratories are permitted and must be 500 feet away from cannabis retailers and cultivators. The labs must also comply with all state-mandated testing procedures, destroy any cannabis that does not comply with the state Bureau of Cannabis Control’s health and safety standards, and install advanced ventilation systems.

The Pasadena City Council retains the authority to make amendments to the ordinance in the future.

The application period opens Jan. 1 and closes at 11:59 p.m. on Jan. 31. The first-round nonrefundable application fee per permit type is $13,654. Once approved, applicants will then have to apply for a Conditional Use Permit and get approved by the Planning Commission. That second round fee is $10,639, for a total of $24,293.

According to Lisa Derderian, the city’s public information officer, Pasadena’s fees are higher than some other cities — Long Beach, for instance, charges up to $8,621—but reflect the amount staff said it needs to recoup the costs of developing the regulations, plus cover administrative expenses associated with running the program going forward.

“We are hoping we will break even,” she said. “[The city is] not making money off this process.”

After the application period closes, city staff will screen, review and score applications by March 31 and notify top applicants by April 15. Throughout spring 2019, top applicants will obtain city land use permits. In the summer, top applicants will obtain their city business licenses and non-transferable cannabis permits. By the end of 2019, finalists will obtain their state licenses and open for business.

The city plans to utilize a “merit-based approach to selecting which applicants will receive the cannabis permits,” according to city documents. The review criteria will consider applicants’ business plan, neighborhood compatibility and enhancement, security plan and the qualifications of the owner and operators. Applicants do not need to have already secured a physical location in order to apply.

Cracking Down

Meanwhile, the city continues to try to shut down existing cannabis dispensaries that are operating illegally. As of June, there were 19 such cannabis dispensaries operating in the city, officials told the Weekly at the time. In 2017, the city began shutting off utilities at illegal dispensaries in an effort to drive them out, following months of trying to get them to comply by other means.

“We shut down two [illegal dispensaries] in the last month,” Derderian said in November. “I know there are a few more out there. We are working with our city prosecutor’s office and our Police Department with the intent to close them all so that those who want to legally and officially apply for the permits abide by that process knowing that there are no illegal ones still in operation. We’ve been trying for several years to get many of them to comply and it hasn’t been effective, so we’re going to have to take legal action and close them down.”

Under Measure CC and the city’s subsequent regulations, those who have operated an illegal dispensary in the city after Nov. 6, 2017, will not be allowed to apply for a legal permit.

Also in June, more than 75 percent of Pasadena voters also approved Measure DD, which allows the city to levy a business license tax on commercial cannabis businesses of up to $10 per canopy square foot for cultivation and between 4 to 6 percent of gross receipts for retail sales. Combined with state taxes, the maximum total taxing rate would be approximately 30 percent. According to a presentation on Nov. 13 by Perry Banner, a contract planner in the city’s Planning and Community Development Department, the intent of the cannabis business tax is “to generate proceeds to offset [administrative] costs, not balance the [city’s] General Fund budget.”

The money, city documents state, will fund “general municipal services such as police and code enforcement services necessary for the proper administration of the regulations, as well as promote health education regarding the dangers of smoking cannabis, particularly to young people.”

In May, the Pasadena Public Health Department launched a campaign to inform the public about the health effects of cannabis use, as well as the consequences of driving under the influence.

Real heroes in a half shell

Patagonia's Old Pas store helps protect desert tortoises—sentinels of the Mojave

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 11/29/2018

The tortoise population in the Mojave Desert is under threat. The main culprit? Humans.

That’s the message Cody Hanford, executive director of Transition Habitat Conservancy (THC), told a packed house on Nov. 9 at Patagonia’s store in Old Pasadena about threats desert tortoises face and ongoing conservation efforts. Founded in Ventura, Patagonia sells sustainable outdoor clothing and gear for travel, climbing, trail running, hiking, fly fishing and snow sports.

Last year, Patagonia’s Pasadena store selected THC as one of its grantees in its Action Works Retail Grants Program to help support their tortoise conservation efforts. The $9,500 annual grant goes toward THC’s native food gardens, a low-cost and low-effort habitat enhancement project that helps assist tortoise survival.

“Patagonia is an amazingly philanthropic corporation,” said Hanford. “They’re really showing how a business could be run. They do a request for proposals for grants and then the staff at that store looks through them and picks what they want. They want to be told of an environmental or climate problem, and what we might do to help it. They were not interested in funding a research grant; they want boots-on-the-ground impact, tipping the scales toward assisting the environment.”

Romeo Lodia, who runs the grants program at the Pasadena store, said each Patagonia store gets a fixed budget from the parent company per fiscal year, which runs from May through April. Organizations that apply through Patagonia’s website get funneled to the store closest to where they operate. Lodia said the Pasadena store selected THC for a grant last fiscal year and this fiscal year, which runs through April.

“It’s a democratic process,” Lodia said. “Each employee for that specific fiscal year gets to vote on the proposal and then we come up with a good number as far as the amount to give that group.”

Nearly Extinct

The native food garden project involves angling corrugated metal sheets on the desert floor to concentrate falling water into one area to trigger native annuals to bloom, a main staple in the tortoise’s diet, rather than invasive plants. The result is that the target area receives more moisture at up to a 10:1 ratio.

“We’re always thinking of these outside-the-box approaches to help the tortoises,” said Hanford. “To our knowledge, nothing like this has ever been done. We were going for a low-cost, low-management solution. It wouldn’t be that effective if we came up with this expensive, labor-intensive way to save the tortoises because who’s going to do it? The idea is to give the tortoises a leg up in these really trying times.”

Patagonia Pasadena’s 12 other grantees include local environmental organizations, such as the Arroyo Seco Foundation and the Arroyo & Foothills Conservancy. THC, headquartered in Piñon Hills near Palmdale on the other side of the Angeles National Forest from Pasadena, is a nonprofit organization that focuses on land acquisitions and habitat stewardship in the West Mojave Desert. The conservancy has acquired over 7,000 acres of land and works to improve thousands of additional acres in Southern California.

The California desert tortoise, or Gopherus agassizii, is the official state reptile and functions as a flagship, umbrella and indicator species found in southeastern California, western Arizona, southern Nevada and southwestern Utah. Along with Gopherus morafkai, found east of the Colorado River in Arizona and in the Mexican states of Sonora and Sinaloa, the two desert tortoise species inform scientists about the health of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts — and the prognosis isn’t good.

Before white settlers arrived in the Southwest, there were between 50 to 300 desert tortoises per square mile. Now there are fewer than five on average per square mile, and often less than that. The population has decreased by 90 percent since the 1980s. They are effectively extinct in certain historic territories such as the Victorville, Palmdale and Lancaster areas. They have been listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act since 1990, making it illegal to harass, collect or harm tortoises with penalties of up to $50,000 in fines and one year in prison. Military bases in the desert all have tortoise conservation programs because of its federally protected status.

“The tortoise tells us so much about the health of the desert,” said Dr. Kristin Berry, a research biologist and ecologist specializing in desert tortoises who works for the US Geological Survey. “It’s a sentinel of the well-being of our environment. The tortoise can be spokesanimal, so to speak, for the desert.”

Human Threat

Berry’s remarks were part of the Mojave Project, an experimental transmedia documentary led by Kim Stringfellow, an associate professor at San Diego State University, exploring the physical, geological and cultural landscape of the Mojave Desert. The Mojave Project is part of Fulcrum Arts’ EMERGE Program, formerly known as the Pasadena Arts Council and still based in Pasadena. Stringfellow wrote in a KCET article that Berry is “the person perhaps most credited with gaining protection of Gopherus agassizii under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“Urbanization, mining, agriculture, livestock grazing, tract home subdivisions, military land use, industrial solar and wind installations and recreational spillover from greater Los Angeles is rampant [in the desert],” wrote Stringfellow. “The issue [of livestock on tortoise habitat land] ignited the 2014 Cliven Bundy standoff in Bunkerville, Nevada, when rancher Bundy — who stopped paying grazing fees to the federal government in 1993, while continuing to illegally graze his cattle on public land — refused to remove them from the Gold Butte area of southern Nevada. The [Bureau of Land Management’s] planned roundup of his livestock backfired when armed militia groups and individuals showed up in support of Bundy, eventually forcing authorities to release 300 of his confiscated cattle back onto public land on April 12, 2014.”

There are many reasons for the tortoise’s decline, all of them directly or indirectly related to humans. Respiratory disease is the primary culprit; tortoises in captivity that are released back into the wild spread bacteria that makes wild tortoises lose their appetite and sense of smell. Poaching, cattle grazing and the increasing development of desert towns, roads, power lines and industrial wind and solar panels also threaten their habitat. Translocating tortoises has also been found to be disruptive and ineffective.

The popularity of Off-Highway Vehicles (OHVs) such as dirt bikes and quads has exploded in the last 20 years, especially in tortoise habitat areas. And climate change is making conditions too hot and dry, even in the desert.

Ravens are particularly challenging. The nonnative birds, which eat baby tortoises, have increased in the desert by 1,000 percent since the 1970s. There is a 95 percent mortality rate in the tortoise’s first five years of life, because they have to live to six in order for their shells to be raven-proof. Ravens have increasingly been subsidized in the desert by humans, who leave trash and build power lines where they nest.

Protecting ‘Mini-Dinosaurs’

Hanford said THC and many other conservation groups are working to mitigate the impacts of these threats to desert tortoises, which he calls “mini-dinosaurs.” Indeed, the turtle form dates back 220 million years to the late Triassic Period. Wild desert tortoises can live up to 50 years and captive tortoises can live to 100. They hibernate from about October to March every year and spend up to 98 percent of their lives underground in burrows that they dig, which help support about 30 other species such as lizards, snakes and rabbits. Their extinction “would have a ripple effect across the desert,” said Hanford.

In addition to purchasing land to permanently conserve, THC works closely with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), other government agencies and other tortoise conservation groups to come up with creative solutions to protect this critical species. Those solutions include placing solar and wind installations in areas of the desert that are already disrupted, rather than disrupting new areas; erasing unofficial dirt roads that OHVs create; and using a 3D printer to create fake baby tortoise shells to discourage ravens from eating them.

Hanford, originally from Tennessee, has been doing desert conservation work in California since 2003. He led desert restoration crews for the Student Conservation Association and worked as an environmental and land acquisition consultant for nonprofits, land trusts and federal, state and local agencies. In 2015, he started working fulltime for THC and became the conservancy’s executive director in 2016.

Conservation Ambassadors

There are several steps that visitors to the desert can take to minimize their impact on tortoises, Hanford said.

“First, do no harm,” he said. “Assume that if you’re in the Mojave Desert, you’re in tortoise habitat. Drive very carefully, and on official roads only. Don’t rescue tortoises that don’t need rescuing. Zoos and national parks are handed tortoises all the time by seemingly well-intentioned folks. Move it if it’s on the highway, but once you’ve taken it into your car, that tortoise is probably not going to be in the wild anymore, which is a loss for them. Consider your impacts with ravens: your trash subsidizes them. And finally, vote with the environment in mind.”

Hanford and other tortoise experts also recommend adopting tortoises that are already in captivity. Captive desert tortoises cannot be returned to the wild because they develop and spread respiratory diseases.

“Adopting tortoises is not going to save the tortoises in the wild, but what it does do is it keeps their spirit and plight alive and front and center,” said Hanford. “People get exposure to them, so they serve as ambassadors.”

About 200 desert tortoises need to be adopted in Southern California, according to Linda Crawford, adoptions chair of the Foothills Chapter of the California Turtle & Tortoise Club, which coordinates adoptions in San Gabriel Valley. That chapter meets at 7:30 p.m. on the fourth Friday of every month in the Palm Room at the LA County Arboretum, 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia. Learn more at tortoise.org/foothill.
Sibling synchronicity

Council considers approving Dakar-Plateau in Africa as Pasadena’s sixth sister city

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 8/23/2018

Pasadena may form its first sister city relationship with an African city Monday when the City Council considers adopting Dakar-Plateau, Senegal, with a population of nearly 37,000, covering an area of 1.93 square miles, and serving as the political, financial and commercial center of the country’s capital of greater Dakar.

While discussions to form a Sister Cities relationship with an African city have been ongoing for at least 20 years, efforts ramped up in 2015 when the Sister Cities Committee created a 15-member ad hoc committee on Africa and appointed Boualem Bousseloub as its chair. Bousseloub is a Pasadena resident who was born in Algiers and has lived in Paris, Albi, Bruges and Sacramento.

Pasadena has established five other Sister Cities partnerships, including with Ludwigshafen, Germany, in 1948; Mishima – Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, in 1957; Järvenpää, Finland, in 1983; Vanadzor, Armenia, in 1991; and Xicheng District – Beijing, China, in 1999.

The idea of partnering cities grew out of the Twin Town concept in Europe in 1946 following World War II. Ludwigshafen was selected in 1948 by the Pasadena branch of the American Friends Service Committee. America’s involvement came in 1956 following President Dwight Eisenhower’s White House conference on citizen diplomacy, out of which grew Sister Cities International (SCI). Pasadena formally established its Sister Cities chapter in 1960.

Traveling to Dakar-Plateau

From March 21 to April 1, Bousseloub led a delegation composed of four members of the ad hoc committee on Africa, Pasadena Councilman and Vice Mayor John Kennedy and Honorary Consul of Senegal in Los Angeles Mame Toucouleur Mbaye, on a fact-finding mission to Dakar-Plateau. There they met with community leaders, including the mayor of Dakar-Plateau and member of the country’s Socialist Party, Alioune Ndoye, to determine the feasibility of forming a sisterhood with that city.

The delegation visited schools, youth centers, museums, the chamber of commerce, the Port of Dakar, the island of Gorée (the infamous gateway of slavery to the Western Hemisphere), the National Assembly, the US Embassy and other locations.

“Mayor Ndoye was with us from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day of our delegation, as was a cameraman from a private TV station,” said Bousseloub. “Everywhere we went we were received with great interest and warmth by officials as well as the citizens of Dakar-Plateau.”

Senegal is one of the most stable democracies in Africa. According to the BBC, for example, it is the “only country on mainland West Africa never to have had a military coup.” Although it is 96 percent Muslim, the country is also tolerant of other religions. Easter and Christmas are government holidays, for instance, and Muslim residents often have Christmas trees in their homes. Officials at the US Embassy also informed the Pasadena delegation that while Senegal is a conservative society, it is making positive progress on LGBTQ rights and there have been no recent active persecutions against LGBTQ people.

Senegal is not without its political turmoil, however. Dakar-Plateau is one of 19 district communes of greater Dakar, with each district commune having its own city government. In March, as the Pasadena delegation was touring Dakar-Plateau, the mayor of Dakar, Khalifa Sall, was sentenced to five years in jail for embezzling $3.4 million and falsifying documents. Sall and Dakar’s city government would not be involved in a Sister Cities relationship between Dakar-Plateau and Pasadena.

Identifying a Sister City

Before settling on Dakar-Plateau, the ad hoc committee explored other possibilities on the continent. They preferred a region that had an English-speaking population, no war or epidemics and a democratic political system that respected human and civil rights. They considered all 54 countries before narrowing the list down to three: South Africa, Ghana and Ethiopia.

They first approached Cape Town, South Africa, but after several months of waiting, Mayor Patricia De Lille informed the committee that Cape Town was only interested in investors, not a formal Sister Cities relationship. The cities of Durban and Port Elizabeth expressed interest, but did not follow up.

In June 2017, Senegal’s Honorary Consul in LA Mame Mbaye unexpectedly called Bousseloub and they discussed the possibility of a Sister Cities relationship with a city in Senegal. On June 18, 2017, Bousseloub gave an invitation letter to Mbaye, who delivered it to Ndoye in Dakar-Plateau. On July 13, 2017, Ndoye wrote back accepting the offer.

“Aware of the extraordinary exchange and collaboration opportunities between our two cities, we express our full support for this project,” Ndoye wrote.

The Importance of Exchange

Bousseloub and Jim Barry, a member of the ad hoc committee who lived in Senegal for five years, are optimistic that the Pasadena City Council will approve their proposal. They pointed out that the Sister Cities Committee overwhelmingly approved it.

Bousseloub also pointed out that Dakar-Plateau has a wealth of museums, a UNESCO World Heritage site, strong infrastructure such as its new airport and port, popular cultural festivals, financial institutions and youth programs. The presidential palace, the country’s major banks and all of its top companies are located in Dakar-Plateau.

If the City Council approves the proposal on Monday, the two cities would exchange official delegations led by Ndoye and Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek and conduct signing ceremonies in each city.

Bousseloub then envisions extensive exchange opportunities between the two cities, including police officers, doctors, students, faculty and administrators of schools and universities, scientists, artists, musicians, business executives and athletes. Ultimately, he would like to see the creation of an annual Pan-African Market and Arts Festival at the Rose Bowl, and invite all of the African consulates in LA to participate.

“People on the West Coast of the United States have so little contact with Africa compared to people on the East Coast of the United States,” Barry said, addressing why Pasadena needs a Sister Cities relationship with an African city.

Bousseloub agreed, pointing out that the African-American community is a sizable portion of Pasadena’s population.

“This is a time when African Americans are searching for their roots,” he said. “We look at Pasadena as a mosaic. We want to add a beautiful new tile to make it a comprehensive and beautiful mosaic. We have Sister Cities relationships with three Asian cities and two European cities. Well, there are no Central or South American cities, and there are no African cities. I think there is something there that needs to be done in the future.”

Pasadena just finished hosting two college students from Ludwigshafen, Germany, who interned at a Pasadena law firm and the Huntington Library. One of the students, Sophia Hoffman, who stayed with different host families in Pasadena and Altadena for five weeks, told the Pasadena Weekly about how meaningful this experience was for her.

“I’ve had a wonderful time here,” she said. “I am glad and thankful for having the chance to be here. The people of the exchange program are very welcoming and cordial. I will always remember my time in California and I am sure that I will come back.”

To learn more about Pasadena’s Sister Cities Committee, visit pasadenasistercities.org.