“Cannabis Landlord” Offers to Fund San Bernardino Animal Shelter

By on April 9, 2019
Stephanie Smith, Pacific Palisades

Riverside Attorney Ben Eilenberg and his client, Stephanie Smith, a Pacific Palisades real estate investor, have a proposal that could help keep San Bernardino’s troubled animal shelter alive and steer the city council away from outsourcing operations of its animal shelter to Riverside County.

Smith is offering to donate more than $100,000 in legal fees owed on the condition that San Bernardino keeps the shelter operating for another year.

“We want to keep the money in San Bernardino rather than take it out of the city,” said Smith of the proposal adding, “My goal is to make the City stronger and better.”

On its March 20 meeting, San Bernardino City Council voted to have staff develop a contract placing all of the city’s animal control services under the umbrella of Riverside County.

As part of this, the city will seek proposals from non-profit organizations to run a local pet adoption center.

By donating legal fees, the need for a local shelter can be extended if the city council would decide to kick in additional funds, Eilenberg said. Rather than the city pay Smith’s company for fees and legal expenses, Smith would rather see those funds donated to San Bernardino — if the council elects to fund the operations gap for a year longer, he said.

“There are many worthy causes in San Bernardino,” says Smith, “but I’m a strong believer that core city services shouldn’t be outsourced and if I can help the city shelter get back on its feet, I’m happy to do it.”

Smith’s Industrial Partners Group owns more than two million square feet of industrial space, mostly in Southern California. Smith owns warehouses, single family homes, multifamily buildings, office space, retail stores and land in San Bernardino.

For Eilenberg, the choice is simple: Accepting the fee settlement is good for San Bernardino.

But some council members have a different viewpoint.

“The ship has already sailed,” said Henry Nickel, Fifth Ward City Councilman, “The offer is too late. Perhaps if it had been made before the March 20 meeting things would have been different,” he said.

Nickel and Second Ward council member Sandra Ibarra were the two dissenting votes on the outsourcing issue. Ibarra could not be reached for comment.

“I get a warm feeling about Mr. Eilenberg’s generosity,” said Seventh Ward Councilman Jim Mulvihill. But “for the sake of the animals,” pursing a multi-year plan with the Riverside County shelter, which has three veterinarians on staff (compared to none in San Bernardino), is a better option.

Because of the leaking roof, many pens in the San Bernardino facility are “uninhabitable” he said. The current San Bernardino facility “is completely inadequate…I feel sorry for the animals there,” Mulvihill said. More than $10 million is needed to bring the existing shelter up to standards, he said, adding “Riverside County operates a state-of-the art shelter that is head and shoulders above ours.”

“Nice, but not enough,” is what Fourth Ward San Bernardino City Councilman Fred Shorett said about the settlement offer.

Given the huge amount which must be spent on upgrades to San Bernardino’s facility, there is no choice but to outsource, he said.

“Investment is always a choice,” says Smith, “the City Council is choosing to outsource this core service instead of investing in the City. The citizens have chosen differently and are making their voice heard.”

Although the Bubba Likes Tortillas lawsuit, filed March 23, 2018, wasn’t settled, San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge David Cohn has acknowledged that the change in the law sought by the lawsuit has been made voluntarily by the city, Eilenberg said.

“Under what the legal world calls ‘the catalyst theory’ the only remaining issue before the court is about how much to award in attorney’s fees,” says Eilenberg.

Among other issues in the Bubba Likes Tortillas lawsuit is the allegation that the city would deny cannabis business owners a license if city officials believed they operated in violation of any state or local laws.

The ordinance, which has since been replaced, violated due process, the lawsuit alleges, because it does not require a conviction, administrative hearing, or any other appeal process. Says Smith, “The City, under former Mayor Davis, wanted the power to ban anyone for any reason – or no reason at all – without giving the applicant an appeal process or right to dispute. What the prior administration asked for is simply anti-American and new leadership recognized it.”

Smith says she welcomes the city’s changes and pledges that the legal fees awarded will be used to make the City of San Bernardino’s services stronger, healthier, and better for residents.