By Miriam Raftery
October 8, 2017 (San Diego) – The City of El Cajon will be reholding public hearings on filing liens against city residents over unpaid bills for trash removal services provided by Waste Management. That decision comes after Councilman Ben Kalasho voted in favor of filing the liens after Waste Management paid $2500 in membership fees to a chamber of commerce that he founded and which his wife headed up since his election to the City Council.
State law requires elected officials to recuse themselves from voting on matters in which they have a significant financial stake.
Waste Management recently revoked its membership due to “controversies” involving the Chamber and the Miss Middle East Beauty Pageant.
The San Diego-Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce has been forced to reorganize as the Middle Eastern Chamber of Commerce after the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ordered Kalasho to cease using the original name due to a trademark conflict with a similarly-named chamber in Detroit. Kalasho’s Chamber, which he has operated as a sole proprietorship, has also run the pageant. The pageant has been sued for fraud and other claims; Kalasho has countersued. The State Attorney General has also launched an inquiry into the pageant’s nonprofit status and most recently sent a final notice to register asking for more documentation, warning that failure to respond by October 19 will lead to referral to the California Franchise Tax Board and “may also result in your organization losing its tax-exempt status.”
Approving liens against property holders with unpaid trash bills has been a routine process in El Cajon and other communities. But Kalasho’s failure to recuse himself from the vote could potentially create a legal quagmire if it were to be challenged.
Thus, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports that City Attorney Morgan Foley indicated that “in an abundance of caution the city will conduct new public hearings and votes for both the February and June 2017 lists of delinquent refuse service fees in which Councilman Kalasho previously participated,” with Kalasho not participating in the new hearings or decisions. Foley indicated the city is holding a revote even though it is “uncertain” whether the Council is required to do so, and that residents notified of delinquencies will have a second chance to dispute those charges.
Foley confirmed to ECM that the information in the Union-Tribune is correct and that the city does not yet know how much the new hearings will cost taxpayers. Notices have not yet been sent out, but the city may do so in November, Lauraine Baldwin, secretary at the city, confirmed in an email to ECM.
The issue raises the question of whether Kalasho might have other conflicts of interest, since he has not disclosed the new or old chamber’s membership lists or sponsors, nor sponsors of the pageant. The City Attorney has indicated that disclosure is Kalasho’s responsibility, not the city’s.
East County Magazine sent questions to Councilman Kalasho which he refused to answer, as has been the case on other recent stories.
Kalasho replied, “My response is that I no longer do interviews with East County Magazine. And, MY media interviews are only scheduled with reputable and legitimate media outlets.”
It is unclear just how Kalasho defines “reputable and legitimate media outlets.” ECM has won over 100 major journalism awards, has 6 million hits and over 200,000 visits to our news site. Kalasho has also refused to answer questions for recent articles published by the San Diego Union-Tribune, including articles written by Jeff McDonald, Society of Professional Journalists’ former Journalist of the Year.
Kalasho regularly sought and received coverage of his campaign and early Council days in our publication. He also participated in a candidate forum on which both East County Magazine and the San Diego Union-Tribune provided two of four co-moderators. Kalasho only refused to respond to questions after ECM and the UT published articles on legal and ethical controversies regarding Kalasho, an elected official, and asked legitimate newsgathering questions on matters of public interest.
Below is our email sent to Kalasho with the questions for this article that he refused to answer:
October 3, 2017 12:30 p.m.
Although you have recently declined to answer specific questions for articles in East County Magazine and the San Diego Union-Tribune and indicated you would refuse future interview requests after both outlets published articles documenting issues regarding your business/nonprofit and other matters, in accordance with ethical journalism practices, we will continue to reach out to you for comment opportunities on stories in which questions are raised regarding your actions.
Below are questions for a story we’re researching on the city holding a revote due to you casting a vote on Waste Management liens that appeared to be a conflict of interest. Please respond with answers to the specific questions above within 24 hours, to be transparent with voters about these issues which are clearly in the public interest.
Were you advised by the city about state and/or city conflict of interest laws before the Waste Management liens vote?
Do you dispute that voting on Waste Management liens was a conflict of interest and if so, on what basis?
Why didn’t you recuse yourself from this vote given that Waste Management has indicated their company was at the time a $2,500 sponsor of the chamber that you founded and that your wife served as president of?
Will you disclose your chamber members and sponsors, as well as pageant sponsors, in the future to the city in order to provide public transparency and dispel questions about any other potential conflicts of interest? Or take any other steps to prevent conflict of interest votes in the future, and if so, what will those steps be?
The city has now announced it will hold a revote on this issue. Do you believe it’s fair for taxpayers to pay the costs associated with a revote that is occurring because you didn’t recuse yourself on the last vote?
We hope to receive answers to these questions by 1 p.m. on Wed. Oct. 4, 2017 (tomorrow). If you don’t respond to this email, we will publish that you did not respond by press deadline. If you respond, but don’t actually answer any of the specific questions above, we will state that you declined to answer these questions of public concern.
Miriam Raftery, Editor