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By:Jessyka Heredia

Video video of hearing: part 1, part 2

Photo: Applicant Chris Williams addresses the City Council.

April 8, 2023 (Lemon Grove) -- During what would normally be a routine hearing by the Lemon Grove City Council on extending a conditional use permit (CUP), Mayor Raquel Vasquez revealed that she had been offered a trip to Las Vegas by an undisclosed person to discuss the project, a medical marijuana dispensary -- an action the City Attorney called an "alleged bribe."

The hearing also included allegations that the City’s opposition to the extension was retaliation against applicant Chris Williams of Pick Axe Holdings, who said the City had approved similar extensions for other applicants.

Williams was asking for a CUP extension on his proposed dispensary at 8280 Broadway, which is set to expire on April 19. In the staff report, interim community development manager Bill Chopyk recommended that staff deny the one-year extension because “the applicant has not demonstrated progress toward satisfaction of the conditions of the Conditional Use Permit.” However, Chopyk confirmed that the applicant did turn in both his building Permit and landscape and irrigation permit applications earlier that day.

At the start of the public hearing, Lemon Grove Councilmembers were asked by the City Attorney if they had any disclosures, Councilmember Jennifer Mendoza said she received an email from Williams ,addressed to Councilmember Liana LeBaron, along with her reply to Williams.

Mayor Vasquez went on the record to say she was “contacted by someone who is known in the business community on behalf of Chris Williams and his investor” to “discuss how this project could get over the line.”

Vasquez disclosed that the person who contacted her put out an invitation to fly her to Vegas to meet and to see what “we could do to get this project over the line.” The Mayor said she declined and told the person that she “had a moral compass and a value system.” Vasquez said she directed this individual to staff after a second attempt to discuss this applicant’s CUP hearing. ECM has requested any public records requests to confirm this accusation, but no reply has been received as of press deadline.

“It looks like there was an alleged bribe,” City Attorney Kristen Steinke said. Steinke thanked the Mayor “for disclosing that; It takes a lot of courage.” Steinke encouraged the rest of Council to always notify her if they are ever approached with a bribe. 

Williams recently lost a civil lawsuit  that he filed against former Councilmember David Arambula and the City of Lemon Grove alleging assault at  Arambula’s home in 2018. Williams claimed that he and Arambula discussed a dispensary application that Williams had pending for his original medical marijuana dispensary application, but Arambula denied this and insisted the evening was a social gathering.  The Mayor was present during the early part of the evening, but left before a physical altercation between the two men occurred.  Williams claimed Arambula assaulted him, but the jury found Arambula acted in self defense.

The Mayor has never recused herself from discussions or voting on any of Williams’  cannabis dispensary applications, despite being a witness and testifying on the stand in the case.

In a separate legal complaint filed against the city before the current incident, Williams has claimed a pattern of retaliation against his applications.

At the Council hearing, Councilmember Mendoza mentioned an email she received from Williams to LeBaron and the reply from Lebaron back to Williams. She stated she was not cc’d by Lebaron in the reply, but received it anyway. City Manager Lydia Romero passed out copies of these emails to the City Council as well as leaving copies out for the public. ECM was able to gain a copy.

The emails start with a reply from Williams to LeBaron with answers to what appears to be questions in regard to the date the applicant asked for an extension. Williams replied that he “applied in writing to Development Community Director Fellows on March 20,2023 (who subsequently is now on paternity leave) Well before my expiration of my permit on April 19,2023.” In this email Williams explains the two dispensaries, Boulevard and Wellgreens that are already open to the public in Lemon Grove applied for their CUP extensions nearing their expiration dates and were approved with various reasons for delay and varying degrees of completion at the time not unlike Mr Williams.

Also in the emails provided to Council and the public that Mendoza disclosed she received was an email to the City Manager asking about the date of the hearing due to Williams receiving an out of office reply from the interim Community Development Director stating that Chopyk would not be returning to the office until April 3, the day before the public hearing.

In this email to Romero, Williams included a Dropbox link that showed his progress and an email from his architect Margit Whittlock which states, “The set of construction documents is 95%” complete.” Whitlock tell Williams in the email to “keep in mind that the progress set has yet to be coordinated between disciplines” and that the ”structural engineer had COVID and months of complications” thus he should “ask for an extension of the CUP based on unforeseen circumstances.” Both CUP time extensions from Wellgreens and Boulevard were attached to the emails that Romero passed out. 

The rest of the Council also admitted they had received these emails as well with Pro Tem Mayor Gastil saying he did not read them.

Williams, the applicant, took to the podium and used most of his 15 minutes to present before Council to clear his name of these strong accusations. Williams said it “seems like improprieties are being thrown in my direction. The word ‘alleged bribe’ thrown in my direction. I take high offense to that.” Williams asked Council to “notice that the Mayor did not mention any names” and “to clear the record tonight because I absolutely have nothing to do with any conversations or invitations to any deals.” Williams told the Mayor, “If something was said that you believe was wrong from people who are within your circle, please say their names.” Williams told Council, “Myself and the public deserve that based off the accusations.”

Williams said the City Attorney used “clear language” accusing “an alleged bribe” attempt. He added, “If someone did call or have a conversation with the Mayor, that was not on my behalf.” Williams said he is “open to doing whatever it takes so whoever is doing those things are held responsible.”

Williams addressed Councilmember Mendoza in regard to the emails she received between Williams and LeBaron. Williams said, “These emails were sent to every City Councilmember in an effort to make sure that every Councilmember had that information.” He made it clear that “there was nothing nefarious” and that “based on what was said up there I want to make sure I read the emails clearly for the public"  He then proceeded to read the emails.aloud.

Williams  explained his inability to reach a Community Development Director on March 20, when he first inquired about an extension. He said he received an auto reply stating that Director Fellows was out of office and to send correspondence to Mr. Chopyk, but that Williams then received another auto reply stating that Mr. Chopyk ” no longer worked for the City of Lemon Grove and to reach out to Michael Fellows.”

Williams explained this is why he sent the email mentioned earlier to Romero asking her to “confirm that the information and documentation within the Dropbox link will be included in the staff report for the hearing.” Subsequently the information in the Dropbox was not included in the PowerPoint, which was announced by Romero when the architect tried to use the projector for her presentation. Romero said the “slides were submitted to the agenda packet.” Romero claimed she “was never told the Dropbox information was to be included in the PowerPoint, so they are not there.”

Gina Austin of Austin Legal Group spoke to represent her clients, Rita Hirmez and Sabah Toma, who also have an application in for a property next door to Wiliiams’ at 8290 Broadway in case Williams CUP expires before approval or extension. In the staff report from April 19, 2022, Chopyx, the interim Community Development Director, stated that Williams’ CUP application “was incomplete and was not approved prior to the one-year expiration of the MUP. The applicant reapplied for the MUP prior to its expiration date of January 12, 2022. On January 27, 2022 the CDM (Community Development Director) published a Notice of Decision to approve MUP-210-0007. An appeal of the CDM Decision to approve Minor Use Permit MUP-210-0007 was filed by Rita Hirmez & Sabah Toma (Appellants) on January 28, 2022. On April 5, 2022, the City Council denied the appeal, thereby granting approval of MUP-200-0007. The Appellants also filed a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) application for a proposed MMD cannabis retail store at 8290 Broadway on December 9, 2021.”

Austin asked the Council to deny the extension based on not enough progress being shown. In a letter of oppositionto the extension submitted by Austin Legal Group, Austin states,”No construction has commenced under the CUP, no use in reliance of the CUP has been established and Pick Axe has failed to meet the city’s stated expiration condition for the CUP.”  Austin concluded, “It is in the best interest of the City to deny the time extension, however if Council chooses to grant the extension, we request it not be for another year.”

When the Councilmembers had the opportunity to ask questions and make comments, Mendoza said, “I’m very sorry Mr. Williams, but in my estimation, you’ve taken 11 months and in my opinion that is not substantial progress.” She told Williams, “This is not the end of the road. You still have until April 19th.” Mendoza was adamant that council was firm on the one-year expiration date, stating, “It’s not fair to the other applicant; they have been patiently waiting a year.”

Councilmember LeBaron said she felt the applicant “has shown that they’ve done progress towards satisfying things in their CUP. I believe the applicant has shown, in comparison, that other medical marijuana CUP applicants have done even less work than what they (Pick Axe) have.”

Lebaron leveled harsh criticism at her Council colleagues, saying, “ All I see is an attempt to target a business owner who has been openly critical of the quality of work City leadership has shown running this City and in an attempt to bully, harass and intimidate the applicant, City leadership continues to abuse the taxpayers by wasting their time and money by holding this ill-timed public hearing.” Lebaron said she “wanted to make it very clear that the only people robbing the public of its opportunity to benefit from medical marijuana being opened are the elected official and high-level City staff, who continue to show their incapable of putting their ego and personal agendas aside.“

Pro-Tem Mayor George Gastil suggested a compromise option , which would extend the CUP by a shorter duration of time, instead of one year, to allow the applicant the opportunity to move forward and hopefully complete the CUP. Gastil said, “If there was some smaller incremental time that would make sense, I might consider it.” Gastil added, “My sense is that we’ve given enough time and we haven’t seen enough results. 

Councilmember Snow madesimilar statements in possibly considering a shorter time extension but ultimately did express concerns with the progress shown. 

Mayor Vasquez asked Chopyk what fees could be refunded to the applicant. Chopyx stated the City could only refund the $2,400 Building Permit fee and $120 landscape permit fee since the City had not begun any work on those at that time. 

In Lebaron’s final statement during deliberations, she said, “There is an issue with the fact that City staff would even let another medical marijuana dispensary apply for permits at a location if there was already an MMD in the works right next door. People have spoken in opposition because they, too, have filed permits for MMD in spite of the applicant having already applied for permits. Why the City staff let that happen, I’m not sure. The law says that there can’t be two MMD’s next to one another and furthermore that it’s first come, first serve.” Lebaron finished by stating,“Staff and Council are trying to knock him from his rightful first place. You have to ask yourself why is this? Its retaliation, its personal dislike of the applicant,” she claimed.

The City Council ultimately voted 4-1 against extending the applicant’s CUP, with LeBaron the dissenting vote.


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Unhappy People

I would like to know exactly what happened to Chris Williams that he has such contempt for the City of Lemon Grove for years. Years. He doesn't live here, so he doesn't have a vote. He is never happy. He does nothing but complain. Why? He owns property here, but manages to waste a lot of the City's time. There isn't a meeting he doesn't go to. He never passes up a chance to speak, knowing full well, they can't act on anything that isn't on the agenda, but most of his cheerleaders don't know that. Why? What is his problem?