Former San Luis Obispo police chief tied to Derek Johnson’s new job

February 27, 2024


A former San Luis Obispo police chief, who resigned her position following multiple mishaps, is tied to City Manager Derek Johnson’s recent resignation. The head hunting company that selected Johnson to run for the chief executive officer position in Marin County lists former police chief Deanna Cantrell as a senior executive recruiter.

For more than two years, Johnson applied for management jobs outside of San Luis Obispo County, according to mutiple sources. Last week, Johnson announced plans to resign as SLO City Manager in April, after accepting the top spot in Marin County.

Johnson has worked for San Luis Obispo for 12 years – the last six and a half as city manager.

During the past three years, an unusually large number of government officials have left city, county and state positions after helping to facilitate projects and permits for marijuana mogul Helios Dayspring, and developers John Belsher and Ryan Wright, three people alleged to have paid bribes to former SLO County Supervisor Adam Hill.


In 2012, Belsher and Wright created PB Companies. Their portfolio quickly grew to include more than a dozen projects that the pair valued at over $300 million.

John Belsher, former SLO mayor Jan Marx, Adam Hill and Jody Belsher

In 2014, San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Adam Hill served as a paid consultant for PB Companies whose project plans Hill openly promoted, exclusively reported at the time by CalCoastNews. Hill worked with City of San Luis Obispo staffers to propel PB Companies’ projects through the development process, even though city code prohibited the practice.

In 2018, Dayspring and his marijuana brand Natural Healing Center hosted a fundraiser for eight politicians, including San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon. While Harmon accepted multiple donations from people affiliated with the marijuana industry during the event, she listed those donors as retired or under a non-marijuana related occupation on her financial report.

Harmon also failed to disclose Dayspring’s non-monetary donation until CalCoastNews reported on the issue.

Dayspring enjoyed a long and warm relationship with local elected officials and city staff. He was awarded marijuana permits in San Luis Obispo, Grover Beach and Morro Bay. In each selection process, critics pointed to manipulation of applicant criteria and unequal treatment of Dayspring’s competitors regarding background investigations.

Shortly before Harmon voted for a resolution establishing criteria for city staff to rank marijuana shop applicants, in late 2018, Dayspring allegedly ordered his staff to give Harmon two bags containing approximately $1,000 worth of complimentary marijuana products, according to one of Dayspring’s former business partners.

SLO City Attorney Christine Dietrick initially refused to release details of marijuana store application forms amid questions about the fairness of the pot shop application process. Dietrick later acknowledged in nearly three of four record requests that her initial decisions to censor portions of records were improper under the law — but only after challenged by CalCoastNews.

In March 2020, SLO staff announced three companies had received the most points: Dayspring’s Natural Healing Center, Megan’s Organic Market and Elemental Wellness. Shortly afterwards, several city staffers, who asked not to be named to protect their jobs, said city officials wanted planning staff to change the scores to knock Elemental Wellness out. The employees refused.

SLO police detective Suzie Walsh was then tasked with interviewing the applicants.

During the April 2020 interviews, Walsh asked odd questions such as, “Have you ever been cruel to animals? Have you ever been involved in a lawsuit? Have you ever had a building code violation?” Even though Walsh does not have a business background, she inspected a number of corporate and business documents.

Walsh also voiced concerns that minority partners with Elemental Wellness had limited or no involvement in the preparation of the city application, a common practice in business. However, she did not require the same level of involvement with minority partners of Natural Healing Center, one of Dayspring’s partners said.

Based on Walsh’s report, then-chief Deanna Cantrell asked city management to disqualify Elemental Wellness, giving SLOCal Roots the third permit.

On March 11, 2020, FBI agents served a search warrant on Hill’s home in Shell Beach, at the same time they were searching his office at the County Building and Dayspring’s home on the outskirts of SLO. The warrant noted allegations of wrongdoing linked to Belsher and Wright as well as Dayspring, according to a county source.

On Aug. 6, 2020, Hill committed suicide.

Also in Aug. 2020, Deanna Cantrell announced plans to resign in Jan. 2021 to become the top cop of the Bay Area city of Fairfield.

In a July 2021 plea agreement, Dayspring admitted to paying thousands of dollars in bribes for favorable votes on his cannabis business interests and for deliberately failing to report millions of dollars in income to the IRS. Dayspring agreed to plead guilty to both felony offenses and cooperate in the government’s ongoing investigation, as part of a plea agreement.

A few days later, in July 2021, SLO County Superior Court Judge Ginger Garrett announced that she was retiring, giving less than a week’s notice.

In Aug. 2021, amid allegations she took gifts from a marijuana businessman, San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon announced she was stepping down to battle climate change. Walsh also left her job with the city.

In Aug. 2022, Cantrell announced plans to resign as the head of the Fairfeild Police Department at the end of the year, because of a breast cancer diagnosis. However, she began working as a recruiter in early 2023 for Bob Murray & Associates, the company that recruited Derek Johnson.

On Oct, 30, 2023, FBI agents arrested Wright on a three-count indictment charging him with conspiracy, falsification of records and obstruction of justice related to allegations he bribed Hill to promote his projects.

In two instances, Wright’s indictment discusses Johnson by occupation.

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Wow, Cantrell seems to continue to fail upwards.

No cannabis license for me. I am cruel to animals. I deny my 20 pound cat unlimited food.