Cordova files petition with city protesting Peters’ cannabis dispensary
BELEN — A Belen businessman and president of the Belen MainStreet Partnership has filed a lawsuit against Jerah Cordova, claiming the former mayor continues to harass him and make defamatory comments about him.
Jay Peters filed the lawsuit in the 13th Judicial Court on Feb. 7, asking for damages for defamation and harassment as well as an injunction to stop Cordova from further conduct.
Cordova, who has not filed a formal response yet in court, told the News-Bulletin Monday he believes Peters is trying to “silence discussion on legitimate public policies.
“Mr. Peters is a public official, as a part of Belen MainStreet …,”
Cordova said. “He has engaged in public policy discussions in and around the organization and city of Belen.”
Peters, who told the News-Bulletin he is not a public official, only a volunteer for the nonprofit organization, says the former mayor has been trying to undermine him and the Belen MainStreet Partnership for years.
“(Cordova) has sent inaccurate accusatory, false and defamatory emails to public officials using language, such as ‘corruption, improprieties, fraud’ and more, when referring to me and the organization,” Peters said. “As president, I have always responded and exonerated the organization and myself. We are very proud of the work we have done for Belen.”
According to the lawsuit, filed by Peters’ attorney, Tibo Chavez Jr., “Cordova has made false accusations, harassing and defamatory communications regarding Peters, by personal email, text communications and verbal communications” during the former mayor’s last year in office.
Peters claims that on May 30 and June 16, 2021, the former mayor sent emails and text messages that were defamatory toward Peters, alleging corruption benefiting Peters.
Cordova denies the claims, saying he has simply engaged in public policy discussions related to the work of BMSP.
“I have a firm belief that they have not delivered on their contractual commitment to the city of Belen,” Cordova said.
“Jerah Cordova stated that Jay Peters used Belen MainStreet Partnership to enhance his personal investment on Becker Ave.,” the suit states. “In emails from Jerah Cordova to (Belen city manager) Andrew Salas, he made similar false and defamatory statements about Jay Peters.”
Peters also alleges Cordova made similar “false and defamatory statements” to Salas, and made accusations of “corruption, financial improprieties, fraud and using MainStreet funds for his personal benefit” during MainStreet board meetings.
Peters told the News-Bulletin he has responded to several of these accusations, including complaints to the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office.
“We asked (Cordova) nicely and respectfully to stop, yet he continued,” Peters said. “I then filed a cease and desist demanding he stop these defamatory communications. It warned him that damages have already been caused to me personally and he should not continue.”
The lawsuit states that because of Cordova’s “misconduct,” Peters sent the former mayor a demand letter on June 18, 2021, “requiring that he immediately cease and refrain from any and all communications and conduct regarding Jay Peters, including any and all harassing or defamatory communications and conduct.” The letter also informed Cordova that if he didn’t stop, Peters would bring legal action.
Peters alleges in his lawsuit that Cordova ignored the letter, and continued to harass and defame him.
On Aug. 18, according to the suit, Cordova again made harassing, false and defamatory statements about Peters in an email “to third parties, where he is stating that Jay Peters is violating the nonprofit rules and ethics and mismanaging city funds.”
Cordova says the accusations were not directed to Peters himself, “but there has definitely been instances within the Belen MainStreet Partnership where they have financially mismanaged funds to the point where I requested one of my donations back several months ago,” he said.
The former mayor said he is concerned Peters did benefit from his position with BMSP, including a mural painted on his building paid for by the organization, a $2,500 grant for facade improvements to his building and an event promoted by BMSP in front of his property.
Peters told the News-Bulletin that the BMSP has a working relationship with both public and private entities, and the board is made up of all volunteers.
“I want it to be known, I don’t have access to the checkbook,” Peters said.
Peters claims in the lawsuit Cordova approached him at the Chavez winery business and “became loud and aggressive toward Jay Peters and his wife. He stated to Jay Peters in front of the owners and customers that he will say and do what he wants because the demand letter requiring him to stop defamatory communications … means nothing to him. Jerah Cordova continued to harass until Jay Peters’ wife left in tears. Jay Peters was very upset about the offensive and haughty comments.”
Cordova denies that he was loud and aggressive, saying he was engaging in a public policy discussion with Peters.
“It’s something that is allowed in our country, thankfully,” Cordova said.
The lawsuit claims that in November 2021, Cordova filed an Inspection of Public Records Act request to the city of Belen, requesting a new business permit and plans for Peters’ cannabis dispensary, Smokal, Smoke Local LLC, on Becker Avenue in an attempt to harass him.
“(Cordova) acquired personal and confidential information regarding Mr. Peters’ business,” the lawsuit states. “Mr. Cordova sent a letter to the city stating that he did not want Mr. Peters’ business to be approved and he requested that all activity in that commercial space be denied.”
According to the lawsuit, Cordova made about five more IPRA requests. Cordova also allegedly called a pastor of a nearby church to request that he oppose Peters’ business.
On both Dec. 3 and Dec. 16, Cordova sent emails to Peters, copying other people, saying “he will not sit by and allow Belen MainStreet to financially mismanage city funds. He requested that (BMSP) be defunded by the city based upon his personal, long-held position of its continued and serious failure to perform. Jerah Cordova stated, ‘I find their failure to perform and the unwillingness to hold the program accountable a violation of our contractual agreements and state law.”
The lawsuit claims Peters has suffered emotional, monetary and other compensatory damages as a result of Cordova’s conduct. Peters alleges Cordova intended to “annoy, seriously alarm or harm” his reputation.
Peters is asking for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, attorney fees as well as a preliminary and permanent injunction preventing Cordova from any harassment or defamatory comments toward him.
The case has been assigned to District Court Judge Cindy Mercer. Cordova has until March 9 to file his formal response.
During the Belen City Council meeting Monday night, Cordova presented a petition with 75 signatures protesting Smokal, Smoke Local LLC.
This was not the first time Cordova has tried to stop Peters and his business partner, Chris Gabaldon, from opening the cannabis establishment.
In a Jan. 23 letter, obtained by the News-Bulletin, to Belen Mayor Robert Noblin, Cordova protested the city’s consideration and approval of the business.
“Becker (Avenue) is a beautiful historic street that has been in redevelopment since the early 2000s as both historic railroad and arts districts, providing a pleasant destination for Belenites and visitors,” Cordova wrote. “It has come a long way, with many new businesses that are laser-focused on tourism and the arts.”
The former mayor told the council, as well as the News-Bulletin, that he has a personal interest in the area as he recently purchased property to open an arts and retail space.
“I have interest in protecting the historic district downtown because I’m a property owner there,” Cordova said. “Having spoken to neighbors, there is a lot of concern in the neighborhood …”
In his letter to Noblin, Cordova wrote, “The type of customer that a recreational cannabis retail business attracts will be a significant detriment to Belen’s ongoing efforts to revitalize downtown. Frankly, the president of the Belen MainStreet Partnership, a local revitalization organization, should know better.”
Cordova argued that the retail business would be in close proximity to children.
“The corner of the parking lot used by the business is within 300 feet of the Belen Public Library, which boasts children and teen areas and programs, and Belen Middle School, specifically the gym and its parking, clearly in violation of city law,” Cordova wrote.
But in a letter Salas wrote to Peters, the city manager told him, “state statute does not establish a minimum distance from a residence to a retail cannabis establishment, and that the state statute establishes a 300 foot minimal distance from such establishment to schools and day care centers as you describe. Libraries are not considered schools or day care centers.”
Peters said either Cordova does not understand the ordinance or he is purposefully mistaking the facts.
“We have absolutely been put through the process, complied with all ordinances, went before the Historic Property Review Board, attended city council meetings, passed multiple fire and cannabis inspections and have already received our license,” Peters said. “We have five doors, seven cameras, electric locks, lights and more to protect everyone. The city has been stern, diligent and professional with us and we have received our business license.”
During Monday’s council meeting, several people spoke for and against the dispensary on Becker Avenue, including Robert and Barb Jaramillo, owners of Jaramillo Vineyards Tasting Room.
Robert Jaramillo incorrectly stated the city council had not discussed an ordinance, and allowing a cannabis dispensary would not be good for the area.
“We’ve made a lot of advances, but this is two steps backward,” Robert Jaramillo said.
The Belen City Council has had workshops and meetings regarding its cannabis ordinance, which was approved in July 2021.
Jay Peters v Jerah Cordova
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.