By Jessyka Heredia
May 7, 2023 (Lemon Grove)- On Tuesday, the Lemon Grove City Council approved two different dispensaries Conditional Use Permits (CUP) while at the same time hearing a prior applicant speak during public comment saying that he has been retaliated against and falsely accused of bribery.
Marijuana dispensary applicants from Element 7 were on the agenda for a Public Hearing to see if the findings could be made that the project is exempt from CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) Pursuant to Section 15301 and approving a Conditional Use Permit CUP-210-0001 to allow a Cannabis Dispensary (CD) Retail Store at 6691 Federal Boulevard, Lemon Grove..
In the Staff Report it states that “On February 25, 2019 the Applicant, Element 7 Lemon Grove, LLC, submitted a Minor Use Permit (MUP-190-0002) application for early separation findings, and that the Development Services Director approved the MUP on May 19, 2019. On September 15, 2020, the Applicant again submitted a MUP application (MUP-200-0004) f for early separation findings, and the Community Development Manager (CDM) approved the MUP on December 3, 2020. MUP-200-0004 expired on December 3, 2021. On January 11, 2021, the Applicant submitted a CUP application (CUP-210-0001) to operate a cannabis recreational and medical dispensary at 6691 Federal Boulevard. On April 5, 2023, CUP-210-0001 at 6691 Federal Boulevard was deemed complete.”
Since the majority of the original building will remain intact council was told by staff that the project is exempt from CEQA and that the “project would utilize an existing 6,435 sq. ft. warehouse building built in 1979, now vacant, formerly occupied by La Mesa Glass Co. The existing 1,373 sq. ft. mezzanine would be demolished, and the remaining 5,080 sq. ft. would be used as a Cannabis Retail Store.”
Resident Lenore Dumas spoke during public comment to oppose the dispensary saying, “the project would increase traffic”, and that “without increased traffic control, the project will only cause the blind spots to be more frequent” on Federal Blvd.
The City Council voted 4-1 to approve with LeBaron being the no vote. LeBaron stated she could not make the findings to approve the CUP due to a lack of traffic control in that corridor and protecting the safety of the community.
The second dispensary on the agenda was also approved but came with lots of allegations, pleas for an investigation and some interesting emails that tell a story of alleged extorsion and a group of people possibly trying to create a monopoly in the cannabis industry here in San Diego.
Back on April 4, 2023, the City Council held a public hearing for a 1-year time extension on a proposed dispensary CUP application P-200-0001 located at 8280 Broadway. This CUP time extension would seem relatively routine on the surface but the applicant Christopher Williams of Pick Axe Holdings LLC claims he was denied as a way to retaliate against him after filing a lawsuit against the city and former councilmember David Arambula for assault following a meeting set up by Taisha Brown, former vice chair of the San Diego Democratic Committee. The Jury ruled that they believed Williams was assaulted by Arambula but that Arambula acted in self-defense and that the City of Lemon Grove was not liable.
Williams also read allowed his public comment and provided an email he sent to all of Council. In this email there are screenshots between Williams and his former attorney Gina Austin who is now the lawyer for applicants Rita Hirmez and Sabah Toma who were in line next if Williams’ CUP failed to get extended. Williams said that Austin has represented other cannabis dispensary applicants in Lemon Grove such as Lunar Loussia of Wellgreens who pleaded guilty on June 3rd 2021 to “offenses related to the dumping of hazardous waste in San Diego County in early 2018” according to Department of Justice (DOJ) documents. Williams also states that Austin has represented Salem Razuki and Ninus Malan in the cannabis industry. Razuki and 2 other business partners have plead guilty to intent to kidnap and murder business associate Malan.
Williams went on further to claim that the Mayor's bodyguard, Charles, has spoken during public comment to support the applicants Hirmez and Toma at 8290 Broadway and has also spoken against Williams’ project at 8280 right next door. Williams provided screenshots where Austin is alleged to refer to Charles the bodyguard and Malan , stating,“Ninus likely heard that from Charles… that is where he got most of his info.”
In Williams’ public comment, he demanded an “immediate public retraction and written apology for the false statements insinuating” that he had “anything to do with an alleged bribe of the Mayor” stemming back from Williams’ public hearing on April 4, 2023 where Williams was denied an extension on his CUP application at 8280 Broadway.
When ECM put in a public records request in April for copies of all correspondence pertaining to this allegation of bribery, the City replied that “the documents requested are exempted from production under government code 7923.600 & 7923.615”. ECM also asked in this same public records request if “the City is sending this info to the DA and or investigating into these allegations” but the City did not provide a response to that part of the inquiry.
Perhaps the most compelling part of the email Williams sent to staff was a three page signed affidavit by Razuki and Malan’s former employee, Phillip Zamora that says Zamora met with Austin, Razuki and Malan at Razuki’s office several times at “7977 Broadway in Lemon Grove to discuss code compliant real properties that Razuki and Malan had acquired, were going to attempt to acquire or were properties at which other parties had submitted applications for cannabis permits that were deemed competition to their own cannabis enterprise.”
Zamora went on in the affidavit to say that “the underlying premise of all conversations, that Razuki and Malan were partners in all of the cannabis businesses that they acquired and that Austin was both their business and legal strategist for the acquisition and development of their cannabis business. “Zamora said in the affidavit that in these meetings “Austin made it clear that the goal of their enterprise was to create a monopoly in the cannabis market in the county and City of San Diego.”
Zamora said that Austin was working against some of her own clients by providing Razuki and Malan “the contact info for the owners of targeted properties so Razuki and Malan could beat out Austin’s own clients in acquiring the property”. Zamora said Austin did this by “delaying the approval of a cannabis permit of her own clients’ applications to allow time for another one of Austin’s clients to acquire a nearby property and have their own application for a cannabis permit approved. “
Zamora stated in the affidavit that “One of Austins clients that was discussed at these meetings was Chris Williams whom Austin was representing for a cannabis application in Lemon Grove.”
Zamora’s signed affidavit was in “support of Darryl Cotton’s ongoing litigation in federal and state courts arising from or related to the ownership of cannabis permits and licenses acquired through legal services of attorney Gina M. Austin”. Zamora said, “What Austin did to Cotton via litigation, is exactly what I heard Austin said she would do and did to numerous other parties on behalf of Razuki and Malan.”
During questions from Council, Councilmember Alysson Snow expressed concerns about children viewing a billboard located on the property and asked Austin “What advertising if any is going to be done on the property for the dispensary?” Austin said that the business owners did not own the billboard and would not be using it to advertise.
Councilmember Liana LeBaron had concerns with possible violations of the municipal code and read code 17.28.020 section G of the municipal code which states, “public hearings shall not be held earlier than ten or later than sixty days following submission of an appeal application or a deemed complete application according to subsection (E)(2). The time limit specified in this subsection may be extended by mutual consent of the applicant and the development services director; however, in no case shall this time period exceed one hundred eighty days” which Lebaron claimed the applicant has exceeded.
The Council voted 4-0 to approve the CUP with Lebaron abstaining. She stated, “I will not be voting. I believe that we’re violating the municipal code and that’s putting the public at risk of being sued and wasting a lot of taxpayer dollars.“
Jessyka has no conflict of interest.
Jerry - I was on vacation and am seeing this belatedly. Your accusations are false and defamatory, and you should retract them. Jessyka has assure me that she has no conflict of interest. She has no financial or personal ties to Chris Williams, other than having volunteered on the Citrus Festival and other communitiy events on which Williams and many others also volunteered. Jessyka has provided critical coverage of Williams during the trial and reported on all sides fairly in her coverage of council meetings and other matters. To call her story"propoganda" is insulting and beneath you, Jerry. I know you care about the community, but it appears you want only one-sided coverage, and that's not what journalism is about. I find it highly ironic that you're accusing our publication of bias, when your relationship with a reporter for another publication was instrumental in that reporter stepping down amid accusations of bias toward your views. Any further allegations of conflict of interest without substantiation will be deleted as it is defamatory.