REDONDO BEACH, Calif. — Redondo Beach residents on Wednesday were faced with a special election, featuring two contests: one, a recall election of Council member Zein Obagi; the other, a ballot measure asking residents to determine the future of retail cannabis in the city. 

In early returns, Redondoans appear to have rejected both the recall and measure, with 74% of voters rejecting the recall and 75% opposing the cannabis measure that would have allowed up to three cannabis dispensaries in the area.

The two measures have another thing in common, other than the date of the special election: the author of the Measure E, a Long Beach-based cannabis retailer, has led the charge in getting the recall initiative on the ballot – and spent well more than $300,000 so far on the campaigns.

What You Need To Know

  • Redondo Beach voters seem to have rejected the recall of a recently elected councilperson and the cannabis measure

  • Cannabis industry retailers who have backed elections and filed lawsuits in other cities are bankrolling both contests, advocating both for the recall and the cannabis ballot measure

  • Redondo Beach has an existing retail cannabis ordinance that includes a tax that would benefit the city; Measure E's proposed law would not deposit money to the city's general fund

  • The council member targeted by the recall believes he's being attacked as an intimidation tactic for other cities that might be opposed to these cannabis retailers

The cannabis measure

The first, maybe most important thing to note, is that the cannabis measure suggests that Redondo Beach currently doesn’t have an ordinance on its books allowing for retail cannabis operations.

It does. The city passed its cannabis ordinance in July. But, if Measure E — the cannabis ballot measure — is approved by voters, it will become the law of the land in Redondo Beach.

Elliot Lewis, the head of Catalyst Cannabis and South Cord Management, LLC, is the proponent of the Measure E — and of essentially identical ballot measures in neighboring Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach.

When he talked to Spectrum News last year, Lewis said that he was seeking to “let the majority of residents decide if they want retail cannabis in their cities.”

It’s a fairly safe bet: In 2016, the Beach Cities overwhelmingly approved Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which legalized use of cannabis for adults 21 and over. The state law allowed a window for cities to decide their own ordinances regarding cannabis. In Redondo’s case, the city council decided to impose a retail ban until the city could craft an ideal ordinance.

Lewis argued that the Beach Cities were each taking too long, then used Catalyst’s customer database to find sponsors for measures across the South Bay. By the time the city imposed its own cannabis ordinance, it was too late — Lewis’s measure was set to go before Redondo residents.

There are a few primary differences between the Measure E’s proposed ordinance, and the city’s adopted rules. The city’s law allows for a maximum of two licenses, and a 5% municipal tax on retailers — on top of state and county taxes. Measure E would create three licenses for cannabis retailers, and would not establish a municipal tax.

If the city’s cannabis ordinance remains the law of the land, some estimates suggest that each store could generate between $500,000 and $1 million per year for the city’s general fund.

Lewis and his business partners have worked to get cannabis into cities more than once, sponsoring ballot measures in a handful of Southern California cities. Once the city has legalized cannabis, Lewis moves to get his business in there — and if he feels that his business is being discriminated against, he threatens a lawsuit.

In 2021, one of Lewis’s businesses sued the city of Costa Mesa. He dropped the suit when, in 2022, he won a permit from the city. A similar lawsuit, also in 2021, accused the city of El Monte of “pay for play” — until it opened its own business in the city.

Not all cannabis proponents are in favor of his methods. The Long Beach Collective Association, a cannabis trade advocacy group, kicked him out for “lobbying for city wide policy change for personal gain,” according to the Long Beach Business Journal.

Opponents to the proposed ordinance say that its “point system” to award a business license — which establishes a friendly bias toward retail operations that have generated at least $3.5 million in gross receipts in the previous six months, as well as retailers with a collective bargaining agreement with an employee union — gives Catalyst a leg up in getting a license.

Barry Walker, a founder of Dub Brothers Management and a partner in the initiative with Lewis, told Spectrum News last year that they’re “not trying to do anything tricky,” but that they will submit for licenses as soon as possible.

“We’re creating a fair process. We want the city to be involved,” Walker said.

The recall

Zein Obagi was elected to the Redondo Beach City Council after winning the March 2021 General Municipal Election. He defeated incumbent John Gran by a 33-vote margin in a contest that featured 2,595 votes.

It didn’t take long for Obagi — whose district lies in the northern portion of the city — to align with Mayor Bill Brand and council members Todd Loewenstein and Nils Nehrenheim, all of whom are based in the city’s southern districts, and all of whom firmly subscribe to “slow growth” policies for local development.

But less than a year into the job, Elliot Lewis, the owner and founder of Catalyst Cannabis, pushed forward with a petition to recall Obagi from his post.

Lewis declined comment when reached by phone, saying that in recent weeks the news media has “sensationalized” and “chopped up” his comments.

Among the reasons for the recall, Elliot’s recall PAC — which is funded by his company, South Cord Management, LLC — argues that Obagi is unfit for the position thanks to a state bar disciplinary case. Obagi, an attorney, is a defendant in a California State Bar Court case, which levied seven counts of professional misconduct, including a charge of moral turpitude.

Back in 2016, Obagi began representing a pair of business partners-turned-rivals — and was eventually retained by one party to sue the other. After the pair settled, the former client alleged that Obagi mishandled and kept incomplete records of more than $500,000 owed to him. The charges, the recall petition argued, make Obagi unfit for his elected position.

Obagi was found liable in civil court, leading to the state bar charges. However, a proposed stipulation of facts — a tentative agreement between the state bar’s trial counsel and Obagi’s counsel — finding that Obagi misappropriated funds was rejected by the judge in the case. The disciplinary case is currently ongoing while the state bar’s trial counsel continues its investigation.

Elliot’s political action committee argues that Obagi is a “shill” for the South Redondo elected officials, citing a vote to retain emergency unhoused shelters in Obagi’s district, despite a previous agreement among the council to move the shelters to South Redondo.

It also cites Obagi’s vote in favor of a local housing plan that would allocate nearly all of 2,490 new state-mandated housing units in North Redondo. As a city, Redondo Beach is quite dense — more than 11,705 people per square mile.

But the northern half of the city is estimated to be denser than the southern half by more than 1,000 residents per square mile. That housing plan, the PAC argued, is wrong for the community, and the vote failed residents.

This isn’t the first recall in which Obagi has been involved. In 2020, Obagi was the signatory sponsoring the recall of then-District 4 councilman John Gran — the man he eventually beat for his seat. Obagi argued that Gran was fiscally irresponsible because of his stance against contracting firefighting services with the county (rather than keeping the city’s existing fire department). 

That recall failed, but it served to establish Obagi within the city’s politics.

So, why Obagi? According to Easy Reader, the local community newsweekly, the recall proponents said that the “dislike for Obagi was palpable,” and “the other council members were safer” targets than Obagi.

Obagi said that Lewis is seeking to send a message to any cities that might chafe at his plans to bring cannabis to their communities.

“He’s funding this so that he can demonstrate to every city that when he comes to your town, you roll out the red carpet, you don’t give pushback, (or) he can and will recall you,” Obagi said. “This is intimidation for every other city.”

One person stands as a potential alternative to Obagi, should the recall succeed: Tonya McKenzie, a public relations consultant and president of a local volunteer business association. McKenzie has been vocal in local politics for years, but this is her first real foray toward elected office.

Why is the election happening on Oct. 19, instead of Nov. 8?

That’s a good question with a complicated answer.

After a recall petition has been declared sufficient, the relevant governing body (in this case, the Redondo Beach City Council) has 14 days to call for an election.

Once the recall has been certified, the recall election must happen in 88 to 125 days, unless a regularly scheduled election would take place within 180 days — in that case, the recall may be consolidated onto that ballot, according to state law. In that case, the election could have been held on Nov. 8.

Separately, the Redondo Beach City Council had expected the Measure E election to take place in March, in accordance with state law, during the city’s municipal elections. (Per the California Constitution, so-called “charter cities” have the freedom to decide when their elections take place — a right that Redondo fought for, and won, against the State of California in 2020.)

But in a meeting on July 19, plans changed. Mayor Bill Brand, who was on leave to recover from cancer treatment, was absent. Obagi was initially absent as well — though he was in San Diego for business, he couldn’t participate remotely as planned due to a noticing error, and drove to Redondo to participate. That left Council members Laura Emdee and Christian Horvath, alongside Loewenstein and Nehrenheim, who was acting in capacity as mayor pro tem.

That night, the Council was expected to discuss the costs of the elections, and declaring their dates. According to the night’s agenda, the council was considering a resolution calling the recall election for Nov. 8, and the cannabis election for March.

The discussion began after Obagi arrived. As it began, Obagi got up from the dais and walked to the back. The City Clerk asked aloud if Obagi was recusing himself, as he had previously done for discussions of his recall election. “He’s…yeah,” Nehrenheim said.

Then Nehrenheim made a motion, with an amended version of the agendized resolution — one which he had not previously submitted to the night’s agenda — to combine the contests and run a special election on Oct. 19.

City Attorney Mike Webb told the council that they were risking a violation of the state open meetings law, which states that the public must be made aware in advance of the actions that an elected body will discuss and take action on.

“If you agendize the calling of the cannabis initiative as a special election and act on it first, then you can consolidate the recall with that,” Webb said that night.

But the council decided to act on feeling, rather than state law, according to Brand, who joined the meeting late. In Redondo, a mayor cannot vote, but can break a tie — and that’s just what he set out to do, expecting Emdee and Horvath against the motion, and Nehrenheim and Loewenstein in favor.

“The way I see it, this is agendized. I wouldn’t say properly, but close enough,” Brand said. “But hey, this happens all the time.”

The reason it made sense to consolidate the elections and move them to Oct. 19, Brand said, is to ensure that these matters wouldn’t be “buried in the general election on Nov. 8, along with Congress and 10 initiatives and everything else that’s going to be on your ballot.”

Horvath adamantly disagreed with the motion. “I think this doesn’t smell right. It disenfranchises voters, it’s undemocratic I think. I cannot support it, and I won’t support it,” he said.

When city staff said that they needed time to write the resolution, Horvath and Emdee left, seemingly eliminating the council’s quorum.

Then Obagi — who, it turns out, had not recused himself after all — returned, leading to a 3–0 vote.

In an interview, Obagi explained that he hadn’t taken part in those discussions “due to the potential perception of conflict,” but didn’t do so this time as he suspected the other council members “could walk out to not allow something to go forward.”

On Sept. 8, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office sent a letter to Redondo’s city council, noting a number of complaints that the council had violated the Brown Act at two separate meetings, including on July 19.

“Although it is arguable, we do not find that the actions at issue here necessarily constituted violations of the Brown Act,” the letter said. “While the Brown Act does not limit the City Council to adopt or reject a resolution based on the version appearing on an agenda, the City Council’s actions undermined the spirit of the Brown Act and the aim to give clear notice to members of the public.”

Counting down to (Special) Election Day

The City Council has unanimously opposed Measure E, and at least five out of the six city council members and mayor have opposed the recall. The city’s police association is also on the record against the recall.

All told, Lewis’s political action committees have spent more than $500,000 on the race, and Lewis himself is knocking on doors throughout the city.

What's left to discover is the final turnout, and how it might affect the election itself.

The traditional wisdom is that special elections — which generally feature only a few contests, drawing only the most passionate voters — have far lower turnout than general elections.

And while Redondo has a fairly active voter base, that wisdom holds when comparing turnout from the general elections that happen every two years to the turnout of the city’s municipal and special elections.

Since 2008, Redondo Beach’s overall voter turnout during general elections has ranged from 40.33% at lowest in 2014, to 89.24% in 2008 — the same year that Redondoans went to the polls to vote among two major land-use measures. Voter turnout on those two specific contests was 75.7% for one, and 72.9% for the other. (In 2014, voter participation on three ballot measures ranged from 35.6% to 34.8%.)

In the city’s municipal and special elections, overall voter turnout drops precipitously, varying between a low of 19.3% in 2011 to a high of 29.3% in 2013 — even in 2021’s all-mail ballot, voter participation topped out at 27.8%.

When asked, Obagi repeated Brand’s suggestion that they’re seeking to engage voters against a crowded general election ballot.

“My (general election) sample ballot has 120-plus pages of substance, not counting indices,” Obagi said. “If our special election was on here, it would be at the end — after the state, after the county, at the tail end.” The special election, instead, puts the matter “front and center” for Redondo residents.

When reached for an interview, Loewenstein viewed it philosophically: Do you want as many people to vote as possible, or do you want to hedge your bets that a special election will lead to a focused electorate?

“Some people say it’s fine, people are going to spend hours and hours reviewing everything. (But) most people don’t,” Loewenstein said. “So I’ll take my chances that people will be really well-informed when people cast their ballots on Oct. 19.”