On Aug. 16, Susana Maza dropped off two letters at National City government offices detailing an odd visit to her store from the city’s vice mayor, Jerry Cano, a couple of weeks earlier.
Months before, Maza had submitted an application for a permit to add two refrigerator doors of beer and wine to her small market, Gama Produce, on the corner of 4th Street and Palm Avenue.
Maza has owned the market for 16 years. She was worried about her business and decided adding beer and wine could help her stay afloat.
“I’m not trying to hurt anybody,” Maza told the National City Planning Commission during her first hearing on Feb. 8. “I’m just trying to give my best service.”
City staff recommended that she get the permit. But in the months that followed, Maza’s application opened up a world of strange small-town politics and alcohol permitting drama.
At first the Planning Commission split its vote over the issue at a February meeting. It re-heard her case in May, denying her application.
It was months after that Maza wrote her letters.
Both letters said Cano had come to Maza’s store on the morning of July 30. They said he had asked to speak with her and they walked toward the back of the business, just the two of them. Both letters described Cano telling Maza that the City Council wasn’t going to approve her permit.
The second, longer letter delves into another part of the conversation, where Cano says the owners of Ranch House Liquor, a liquor store near Maza’s, had offered him campaign contributions.
“Mr. Cano stated how he was contacted by the owner of Ranch Liquor House and how the owner offered him campaign contributions to his campaign and that the owner of Ranch House liquor would provide money to Jerry’s father as well,” reads the letter. “I shared with him ‘I don’t have money, but I allow all candidates to place their flyers and signs at my store.’ He also stated the Ranch Liquor House had more clout as a business and that I would not receive my liquor license because Ranch House has stronger advocacy.”
The owners of Ranch House Liquor, Mike and Nadia Hermiz, and their cousin Robert Zakar, who owns several markets throughout National City and a funeral home in East County, led the opposition to Maza’s permit for months. They collected more than a hundred signatures in opposition – though a petition of support garnered nearly as many – and letters and speakers in opposition to submit to the city.
Maza’s letter suggests that Cano told her a campaign contributions would determine his support for her alcohol permit – and that he implied that if she did not offer up a contribution, a donation from a competing business that he had been promised would seal her fate. If those accusations are true, that would be illegal.
Cano hasn’t responded to an e-mail and multiple messages.
The owners of Ranch House Liquor have said repeatedly in public hearings that their opposition has nothing to do with the potential competition from another alcohol seller in the neighborhood. It has to do with the reputation of all alcohol venders in National City and the quality of the neighborhood, they’ve said.
Mike Hermiz, the owner of Ranch House Liquor, told the City Council on Oct. 4 that he worked hard to clean up the area when he opened his store. He put in more lighting. He refused to serve certain people.
“I lose a lot of business, but I don’t care because I want safety for this corner,” Hermiz said. “We need to ask ourselves by adding more alcohol, will it help or hurt this community?”
His wife, Nadia Hermiz, agreed, and said although she understand Maza’s desire to expand her business, this isn’t the way for her to get more opportunity.
“No business can make it with two doors,” she said, referring to the small amount of beer and wine Maza was requesting to add. “You’re not going to save a business or break a business, but you are going to bring harm to the community.”
With an interpreter, Maza told the City Council earlier this month in Spanish that she didn’t understand why the business across the street was opposing her.
“I know many don’t agree with giving this approval,” Maza said in Spanish. “However, it’s a necessity of mine in order to run my business. I need to be able to do this.”
Maza’s permit was ultimately denied. The City Council had a split vote, so the Planning Commission’s rejection held.
In the past three years, approximately 10 such conditional use permits have come before National City’s City Council. Most have been approved. The city has denied only Maza’s and one other, larger project.
After Maza’s letters, Cano recused himself from voting on Maza’s permit.
Now he has threatened both Maza and the CEO of the National City Chamber of Commerce, an entity that supported her, with defamation lawsuits.
“Just for the record, I will be recusing myself from this item as per advisement from legal counsel due to an ongoing review to evaluate what appears to be an intent of malice to damage my credibility with untrue allegations,” Cano said before leaving the Council chambers on Oct. 4, when the City Council heard Maza’s permit application.
In a letter to Maza and the chamber CEO, Cano’s attorney wrote, “This alleged conversation did not take place. Mr. Cano at no time discussed the matter in any detail with Ms. Maza, other than to initially respond to a casual verbal inquiry in encouraging her to apply, as he would to any honest business person.”
The chamber and Maza declined to comment, citing the ongoing legal threat.
According to campaign financial disclosures, Cano received a $250 contribution from Zakar, who led the opposition against Gama Produce’s permit, on Aug. 19.
Zakar said he’s always been involved in politics in National City and elsewhere. He said he gave the money to Cano at one of Cano’s campaign events, but it was a very small amount.
Some of Zakar’s other contributions have included $200 to County Supervisor Dianne Jacob in June of this year and $900 to District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis in 2014.
Cano, who is up for re-election, has raised a little more than $9,000 this year, in fourth place in terms of fundraising for the six candidates vying for two City Council seats.
Zakar, the owners of Ranch Liquor House and the other opponents harped on two concerns.
One was the oversaturation of businesses selling alcohol in the census tract – a problem in most census tracts in National City, said Martin Reeder, a senior planner in the city.
The second issue was that Maza had previously put the place up for sale and the neighbors were worried that a new operator would abuse his or her ability to sell alcohol. The opposition had found a listing online for the store that described the business potential, including the sale of alcohol and they were concerned Maza was only applying for the permit to increase the value of her business only to sell it to someone else.
Both planning staff and the police department acknowledged in reports and during public hearings that while the area had a higher number of alcohol permits than ABC recommended and a high crime rate, they didn’t think granting Maza the permit would make a big difference.
Before deciding to apply for the alcohol permit, Maza said she had temporarily posted her business for sale.
One of the couples interested in buying it was Mike and Nadia Hermiz, the owners of the business across the street.
Maza said she had told them she changed her mind about selling the business. At the May Planning Commission hearing, Nadia Hermiz said they decided not to buy Maza’s business because it was failing. She also stressed that the two coolers of beer and wine in Maza’s store wasn’t going to affect their business and that her and her husband’s complaints didn’t have to do with competition.
The Chamber of Commerce supported Maza’s application throughout the process.
At a City Council meeting in September, though Maza’s permit wasn’t on the agenda, Chamber of Commerce Chairman Brian Clapper read a statement about her experience to the Council members during the public comment period, when anyone can discuss any matter.
“Gama Produce represents the heart and soul of the National City business community,” Clapper said. “Gama Produce is woman-owned, minority-owned and it is a small business owner. We believe they should be given a fair opportunity to compete in our local economy and satisfy their customer’s demand for expanded beverage product. She is asking to add two doors of alcohol, not two aisles. … Unfortunately, Ms. Maza has not had a pleasant experience throughout the process. She has suffered harassment and intimidation from her competitors, misrepresentation and erroneous representation was presented before the planning commission.”
Clapper continued describing Maza’s letters about Cano.
“As a community, we want to provide a positive experience with business owners regardless of the outcome. We want to understand why decisions are made and uphold the equitable process,” he said.
When asked about his statement later, Clapper said he read it because Maza is a Chamber member and as the leader of the Chamber of Commerce, it was his responsibility to do so.
“I spoke on behalf of the Chamber,” Clapper said, not wanting to discuss the matter. “What I said was nothing against anyone, nothing intended. I’m not involved in those politics.”