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By Miriam Raftery

October 4, 2012 (El Cajon)—Three challengers running for office in the El Cajon Council race have made allegations including sign-stealing, racism and pressure on local merchants to back incumbents and suppress messages from other candidates.

On September 25, John Gibson with the Hamann Companies, a backer of  incumbents Bill Wells and Tony Ambrose,  made racially-charged remarks  about Iraqi Chaldean candidate Ben Kalasho in a City Council meeting.  The comments came after the Kalasho campaign accused Gibson, along with an incumbent Councilman, of involvement in removing and defacing Kalasho campaign signs.

Gibson (photo, right), in testimony to the council, said that “when Kalasho’s signs showed up…it raised some concerns that he can’t understand English.” He further claimed that some Kalasho supporters support abortion and that he did not want Kalasho signs on properties that he manages.

Kalasho testified in response, calling Gibson’s remarks “way out of line.” He added, “I take offense to this and think Chaldeans listening will take offense.” Kalasho, speaking in perfect English, also noted that he has not taken a position on abortion, which is not an issue that local council candidates must vote on.

Curiously, the  videographer who filmed the Council meeting for the City’s TV station claimed that Kalasho’s rebuttal testimony was destroyed due  to a technical malfunction. 

"Their way of shutting me up is deleting my speaking time," Kalasho (photo, left) charges.

Now, a group calling itself  the Society of Christian voters obtained a full copy of the video and has posted it on Youtube, showing Gibson’s derisive remarks and Kalasho’s response. The group characterizes Gibson's testimony as "racial profiling": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=943Hfa3juSo.

 Gibson along with Councilman Bill Wells had been accused by a witness of  being in  a vehicle with a third man who allegedly took down Kalasho signs and putting up Wells/Ambrose signs--along with signs warning that only candidates supported by the conservative Lincoln Club may post their signs on the properties.

Both Ambrose and Wells (photo, right) have denied any knowledge of the sign removals.

“I have never been in a vehicle with someone who was taking down signs,” Wells told ECM, adding that the witness, former Congressional candidate and Army veteran Karen Marie Otter, is a “Democratic operative.” 

He insists that Kalasho “manufactured the sign crisis”  adding, “He has no problem lying to get what he wants.” Wells noted in an interview with ECM that Kalasho made headlines two years ago when he ran for the Santee council and signs reading `Vote for Kalasho, the Arab leader Santee needs' mysteriously appeared around town. (Kalasho, like other Chaldean Christians, does not consider himself to be Arab and has said the signs were a racially motivated attack.

Wells further contends that signs removed were on private property where Kalasho did not get owners’ permission. But Kalasho says that some of the property owners did give him permission –and that those signs were stolen. He has filed a Police report and provided the file number; the El Cajon Police did not yet respond to ECM's request for details.

The signs that were taken and defaced in El Cajon, some marked with profanity, ironically were signs touting the El Cajon Police Officers Association’s endorsement of Kalasho.

Otter, who regularly attends Council meetings, insists that “I did see Wells by and in the truck that contained the men who did vandalize the signs. It was towing the trailer that contained the Wells/Ambrose signs.”  According to Otter, Gibson was driving and Wells was in the passenger seat. 

She said some signs were defaced by writing on the front.  “That is what I personally witnessed on the corner of Ballantyne and Wells in El Cajon,” she said.  “The man who did the actual removal told me it was because it was Priest Development property, but I know that tht corner is not owned by Priest but by the Park Avenue HOA (homeowner association)...They are strongly asserting property rights, but it’s not their property.” Councilman Wells lives in that property, Otter added.

Otter forwarded a photo of the truck and trailer. ECM later reviewed surveillance video from a local business that showed the same make/model truck and trailer with three men, shot just minutes after Otter claimed to have seen the sign removals.

Bonnie Price, Kalasho’s campaign manager, said Otter followed the vehicle for several blocks after spotting it at a laundromat near Madison and Magnolia, calling Price  repeatedly during the incident.    

Kalasho told 10 News that a Rubio’s employee called him to “come take the signs out of his dumpster” where they had been tossed in the trash.

He says he was given permission by the property manager of a shopping center ad Main and Second Streets to post signs. “Cathy, the city clerk, calls me and says that the property owner of the shopping center ..says that I didn’t get permission to put a sign there and he told the city to tell me to remove it…I have no doubt that someone tried to bully and strong arm the actual owner and get him to call the city,” Kalasho told ECM.

He also forwarded an e-mail from AA Equipment’s Scott Del Niro, advising that the property owner wanted his signs down “as we do not have permission of the property owner.” He made clear that a Lincoln Club of San Diego was posted requiring posters to be members.

Kalasho, a Democrat, isn’t the only candidate having signage problems.

Chris Shamoon (photo, right), another Chaldean candidate in the race, posted on his Facebook page this week that he has also had numerous signs disappear. Shamoon is a Republican.

Duane Swainston, a Republican candidate also vying for a council seat, says downtown business owners who lease space have been pressured by property owners to only post signs for incumbents. 

Swainston says he cancelled a fundraiser at Mangia Bene restaurant because he was told he could not put up his campaign signs—and Wells/Ambrose signs were posted instead.  

“I talked with the El Cajon Brewery,” adds Swainston (photo, left). “Because they hosted a fundraising dinner of mine and I had posted thanking them with pictures, they received harassing phone calls and e-mails …So even though they said at the time I could list them as a supporter on my website, they are now taking a neutral stance and not supporting anyone because of the backlash.” The Brewery also got substantial redevelopment funds from the city.

Swainston objects to “a certain developer in the downtown area who is very much against any changes in the current council and is trying to control who can post signs.”

Mike McHugh e-mailed ECM to state that he is upset over signs disappearing even from lots where signs for numerous candidates have posted their signs in the past.  He said Priest got a “sweetheart deal” for a loan to El Cajon Brewery. 

McHugh confirmed Kalasho’s statement that some of the removed signs were indeed on properties where he had obtained permission.  “Happy Pizza had a huge Kalasho sign on the side of their building,” he told ECM on September 11 “and when I drov by today to eat it was gone. I asked Nick, the GM (general manager) and he said someone stole it Sunday night.”

He added that Super Star Gas Stations endorsed Kalasho but had Wells/Ambrose signs put up without permission. Kalasho signs were taken down, along with Shamoon’s, he added.  (Editor's note: The gas station owner, Hani Toma, has since clarified to ECM's editor that he initially gave Kalasho permission to post signs, but later revoked permission and endorsed Wells/Ambrose. Toma revoked his endorsement after a post on 10 News purporting to be from Toma claimed that Wells/Ambrose signs were posted without permission. Toma contends the post was a fraud and blames the Kalasho campaign, which has also denied responsibility for the comment and claimed it was a dirty trick by his opponents.)

McHugh says he also found a Wells/Ambrose sign by Downtown Café.  “I asked if they were indeed supporting them and the woman said they have no clue where the sign came from; it was put up during closed hours.”

McHugh called the situation “sad politics” and says he is now supporting Kalasho.

Are property owners and the city clerk violating the law by pressuring business tenants to take down political signs?

City law allows window signs with political messages, subject to size limits, to be posted inside windows and does not require owners’ permission in residential zones. Outdoor yard signs in residential zones are subject to property owner’s consent.

In commercial zones, however, “No sign may be displayed on real or personal property without the consent of the legal owner of the property on which the sign is mounted or displayed,” according to the statute.

ECM asked David Loy of the San Diego ACLU about the legality of this.  Loy noted that state law may trump the local ordinance.  California recently adopted SB 337, codified at Civil Code section 1940.4, which provides limited free speech protection for tenants regarding political signs near election times. The statue says that “political signs may be posted or displayed n the window or on the door of the premises leased by the tenant in a multifamily dwelling, or from the yard, window, door, balcony, or outside wall of the premises leased by a tenant of a single-family dwelling.”

Although the statute targets residential tenants, the statute also says, `Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit the application of any provision of this chapter to tenancy in a dwelling unit, unless the provision is so limited by its specific terms’’” Loy notes, adding that a court might well rule that 1940.4 applies to commercial property tenants as well.  Loy further notes that the case Cf. Golden Gateway Ctr. V. Golden Gateway Tenants Assn on leafleting concluded that the law “does not give apartment owners carte blanche to stifle tenant speech.”

The ACLU spokesman further observed, “It’s possible the El Cajon ordinance neds to be updated in light of 1940.4.”

Also at question is the role of the Lincoln Club in the sign removal controversy. The Lincoln Club purports to support pro-business candidates and endorses mostly conservative Republicans.

Lincoln Club spokesman Tony Manolato admits that the San Diego-based political group approved the Lincoln Club signs put up in El Cajon, but denies involvement in removing signs. “We simply agreed to produce signs for private property owners to let folks know that they can’t put signs without owners’ permission.”

Told of the Lincoln  Club signs by 10 News, the Registrar of Voters said “It seems really odd to me.”

But Price sees a connection.  “The Lincoln Club was also one of the partners in making the charter for the city of El Cajon, opening the city for no-bid contracts. The old boy network is getting richer and richer, while the residents are getting poorer and poorer.”

Price has also found evidence suggesting that the Lincoln Club of San Diego County may have violated its charter. She obtained a form 410 from the Secretary of State and found that “While the form says the filing is for a city political action committee, the name and actions of the organization cover the entire San Diego County. Unless an additional 410 has been filed, she suggested, the group may have acted illegally in becoming involved in El Cajon politics.

As for Gibson’s employer, Hamann, this is not the first time the company has faced allegations of dirty politics.  The Fair Political Practices Commission found that then-Assemblyman Joel Anderson illegally accepted donations in excess of legal campaign finance limits. Those donations, funneled through an out-of-town Republican Central Committee, included a hefty contribution from Hamann.

Sign-stealing allegations locally are nothing new. In 1998, a Los Angeles Times article described an "epidemic of campaign sabotage"in San Diego County including three cases of misdemeanor theft/vanadalism. The story noted that "for sheer skulduggery, the prize may go to the case of the disappearing apple-shaped signs placed by an incumbent for the El Cajon school board." The vandal was identified as Taghrid Bakeer; her husband, Emad Bakeer, who has run for several local offices and is currently a Lakeside Fire Board candidate, was also in the vehicle and had previously been convicted of petty theft, according to police.

Sign-stealing allegations haven't been restricted to Republicans; in a 2004 Democratic Congressional primary, John Rinaldi was accused of stealing signs; his opponent, Derek Casady, filed a police report but dropped charges after Rinaldi won the primary. (He later lost the general election).

What's new, however, are allegations of intimidation against those who wish to post signs for certain candidates, as well as the involvement of the Lincoln Club--which was also a key backer of the Citizens United case that resulted in the Supreme Court declaring unlimited corporate campaign contributions to be constitutional.

Price is angered at the destruction of campaign signs. But ultimately, the turmoil over signs is just a “distraction” from what she views as the real problem in a city of El Cajon, which has highest poverty rate in San Diego County and the highest sales tax rate in East County.

“El Cajon’s people are being fleeced by the Republican Party/Lincoln Club/private corporations,” Kalasho’s campaign manager concludes. “The corruption is rampant and palpable—we simply must win this race.”

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An earlier version of this story indicated

that two developers, Priest and Hamann have profited from projects before Council.

Gibson sent an email drawing a distinction between discretionary permits and adminsiterial approvals.  "Hamann has not done any development deals involving any property in the City of El Cajon under the current council that required any action by the city council," hr wrote. Secondly, there is NO instance where the Hamann’s (or Gibson) have profited from any involvement with the City of El Cajon." He also clarified that there are multiple Hamann entities.

Signs are expensive!

I will confirm that I have had many signs stolen from several locations (some repeatedly from the same location) where I had permission. These signs are gone without any knowledge of the property owners. I have notified the police and am gathering more information, as advised, to file an accurate report. To my knowledge, my signs are still displayed at the Superstar gas stations, but I will make my rounds to double check. After requesting permission to post where the Lincoln Club required one to do so, I was denied because the spots were reserved for the 3 people whom they had already endorsed, so I did not post at any of those locations. It is expensive to replace signs and seems to be of no effect as they only disappear again. I will not point fingers without confirmation, I just hope that whoever is doing this is caught and forced to reimburse candidates for the stolen material. It's time to forget the signs and focus on voting for what's best for El Cajon.