Councilmember Stephen Whitburn for District 3 during a meeting for the Informational Update on Civic Center Revitalization Project. (District 3.) in downtown on Oct. 17, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler
Councilmember Stephen Whitburn for District 3 during a meeting for the Informational Update on Civic Center Revitalization Project. (District 3.) in downtown on Oct. 17, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Councilman Stephen Whitburn has responded to my Politics Report Saturday demanding a retraction.

He makes one claim that is correct and I have corrected the report to more accurately quote from a public meeting recording that I incorrectly transcribed. However, his other points are context and opinions that I’m glad he wrote out and I am going to respond to them. I wish he would have decided to talk to me in the days before publication when I requested comment.

But they do not change the message or facts of the piece I wrote. Here are his points (you can read his full letter here) and my responses.

Background: The piece this weekend was about Whitburn’s push in 2021-2022 to update the city’s cannabis regulations to allow more retailers to find locations in San Diego and to stay open longer, among other tweaks. Whitburn’s chief of staff at the time was Jesus Cardenas and he had disclosed receiving significant income from cannabis interests, including retailers.

I wrote that this all could get more scrutiny now that the district attorney also recently accused Cardenas and his sister, Chula Vista City Councilwoman Andrea Cardenas, of fraudulently conspiring to apply for and collect a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the federal government. Those loans essentially turned into grants to support businesses during Covid who kept employees on payroll. The DA alleges the Cardenas siblings claimed a cannabis retailer’s employees as their own.

Whitburn’s first claim in response: In one section of my piece, I wrote about the tension Whitburn’s push for the new changes to cannabis regulations provoked at the city’s Planning Commission on Dec. 9, 2021. Members of the Commission had objected to the perceived urgency of the change to the city’s rules and the fact that even as they were learning about the changes, Whitburn was planning to advance them at a City Council committee meeting that afternoon.

Were they just a rubber stamp? A member had asked. Here was my transcription of the response from Whitburn’s staffer, Jacob O’Neil.

“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.

As Whitburn points out, this was an incorrect transcript of O’Neil’s comments. Here was the full passage:

“I don’t think that you’re a rubber stamp. It just happened to be timing-wise on the same day. I reached out in September to Sabrina and tried to set up a date. We were aiming for a November date so that it could be heard at the December hearing of Land Use and Housing. November 14th and 18th were the two dates available. The 11th and the 25th were both holidays; you guys had pretty heavy days there. December 2nd you guys had a long meeting. The calendar she sent out had December 9th as no one being there at all at the time, so we thought it appropriate to go on that date to come before you. And my understanding is you weigh in here at the meeting and you make a motion and weigh in. So this information is going to go up to the Land Use Committee. If you guys had an issue, we would’ve just cancelled that afternoon Land Use Committee ….” (Planning Commission, December 9, 2021, at 2:08:56)

I later called this a pledge to cancel that O’Neil and Whitburn didn’t follow through with.

I concede the transcription was incorrect and it wasn’t necessarily a pledge to cancel the afternoon meeting. He didn’t say “we would just cancel.” He said, “we would’ve just canceled.”

I don’t agree, however, with the distinction Whitburn insists this makes.

Here’s Whitburn on the difference this distinction makes: “The article’s misquote falsely makes the staff member’s statement appear to be a forward-looking pledge. In fact, the accurate quote, in which the final sentence is in the past tense, describes how a hypothetical situation would have been handled if the item had been heard at an earlier Planning Commission meeting as originally planned.”

I don’t think it’s that clear. The impression is clear to me that if the Planning Commission had a problem, it wouldn’t go forward. And the Planning Commission did have a problem.

Whitburn is saying that if they had managed to schedule it earlier and if the Planning Commission had a problem with it, they would have canceled the afternoon meeting. But they didn’t schedule it earlier, and the Planning Commission didn’t have an “issue” earlier, so they didn’t cancel the Land Use and Housing Committee meeting.

OK, but the Planning Commission clearly expressed its issues with the changes that day. It was not hypothetical. If Whitburn’s point is that he did value the Planning Commission’s input, then their demand that it go through more public outreach would have still mattered to him that day and he could have continued the discussion at the City Council committee. Instead, he not only kept the meeting scheduled but pushed to advance the changes and made a motion to send them to the full City Council despite O’Neil’s pledge earlier to take them to the community planning groups first.

Whitburn’s second claim: “The article further mischaracterizes the pace at which I thought these regulations should be updated. The article describes my work on these issues as an ‘urgent push’ and a ‘furious push.’ It says I was ‘anxious to get these changes done,’ and it attributes to me ‘frustration’ when the changes were postponed. These are false characterizations. I have never seen a need to rush these reforms, nor have I ever expressed a need to rush these reforms. In fact, when a Planning Commissioner directly asked my staff member if there was a ‘need for speed,’ my staff member responded that the only need would be on the redistricting portion (since new council district boundaries taking effect within 30 days could put the city out of compliance with its own rule limiting the number of dispensaries to four per council district).”

As he concedes, there was no urgent need for the changes to go to the City Council committee on Dec. 9, 2021. And yet, they did.

As a writer, I learned long ago to be careful trying to get inside someone’s head. However, I don’t think the urgency he had is that controversial. The evidence is that he pushed to advance the changes at City Council despite the Planning Commission expressly demanding that the changes go through a more thorough public process and scheduling a future meeting to accommodate that before it went to City Council. O’Neil had seemed to agree to that accommodation and yet, Whitburn presented them to the Council that afternoon.

He made an emotional plea at the City Council committee discussion and, even when not receiving a second to his motion to advance the new laws to the full City Council, he double checked with his colleagues before finally dropping it.

One thing he doesn’t dispute: Jesus Cardenas worked on the proposal while he served as Whitburn’s chief of staff.

There is no more simple principle in government ethics than the one that makes clear that if you have a direct interest in a policy or if you’re being paid by people who do, you should not work on that policy. Whitburn did not address in his letter how involved Cardenas was in the loosening of regulation on cannabis retailers. He does not dispute that despite the unknown and known connections Cardenas had to the cannabis industry and financial interest he had with retailers, Cardenas did not recuse himself.

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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  1. So basically you chopped a quote to mislead your readers and got called out on it, and your response is that it’s not a big deal. Who edits the editor of the editor is a dunce?

  2. There is a lot of shady stuff happening around Whitburn, with former staffers, roommates, and such. There is no direct connection to Whitburn but he seems to be nearby several times. Let me put it this way, if Mr. Whitburn made change for me I would count it twice before I put it in my pocket.

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