El Cajon City Councilman Ben Kalasho clashed with Mayor Bill Wells on Tuesday over the use of his smartphone on the dais, and now the council is moving toward censuring Kalasho.
Council policy forbids using personal cellphones and tablets during public meetings unless in an emergency.
When the council reconvened after a closed session on Tuesday, Wells twice asked Kalasho to put his phone away and added, “We’re not doing this to hurt you.”
Kalasho interrupted Wells and said, “You absolutely are doing it to hurt me.”
When asked if there was an urgent need for him to be on his phone, Kalasho told Wells it was because of an emergency.
“You have no right to tell me if I’m having an emergency on my phone,” Kalasho said. “And so if I’m having an emergency on my phone, not you or anybody else in this room could tell me to put my phone down. Do you understand?”
Wells told The San Diego Union-Tribune on Wednesday that there are other troubling matters with Kalasho that affect the City Council, including a fraud lawsuit against his business. Among other allegations in the lawsuit, contestants in a beauty pageant run by Kalasho have accused him of sexual harassment. Kalasho denied the allegations in a counter-suit.
The U-T Watchdog team has also been reviewing issues with the nonprofit status of Kalasho’s business ventures, and potential conflicts between his business interests and council responsibilities. The councilman has waged a social media campaign against the newspaper without addressing questions.
“All of those things are very disturbing to the council members,” Wells said. “I believe the council has come to a point where we are going to have to do something to protect the public and let them know that we in no way condone this kind of behavior.”
Kalasho declined several offers to comment for this story on his cellphone use and potential censure by the council.
A censure by the City Council means as a group it will condemn Kalasho for actions deemed unacceptable to the council’s standards of behavior.
“The reason we made this rule about not using a phone is to protect the public,” Wells said. “We’re doing this so the public knows we’re conducting city business. We should not be having secret conversations. It’s not about us and our problems. This is about the public. He’s not defying me, he’s defying the public.”
Wells said he is checking with the city to see how to legally go about a censure and that he may add an item about that to the City Council’s next agenda. The next meeting is at 3 p.m. Oct. 24
El Cajon’s council decided in August that only city-provided iPads can be used on the dais. Kalasho voted against the policy. The iPads are configured to eliminate all email and Internet capability, except to city of EI Cajon official sites.
Kalasho has been on his cellphone during several City Council meetings since the policy went into effect, according to Wells.
Wells told Kalasho on Tuesday that he needed to comply with the rules and said he was issuing the councilman a final warning about his phone use.
“I’ll ask you at the next meeting,” Wells said. “If you’re oppositional or defiant at that point, I’m going to ask the City Council to censure you.”
Councilman Gary Kendrick said the public has a right to a council member’s full attention during a meeting.
“People need to know that council members are listening to them and not being distracted being on the phone,” Kendrick said. “This policy applies to all of us.”
Kendrick said there is concern that a council member could be violating the state’s open-meeting law by being on the phone during a meeting.
“There’s no way to know who that council member is talking to,” he added. “It could be someone that is coming to speak to the council.”
Kendrick said that as an elected official for more than 20 years, he had never seen public admonishment of this sort before.
“I hope it will convince him to act responsibly in the public office that he holds,” Kendrick said.