Calexico city officials, past and present, have long been subjected to the slings and arrows of angry citizens. Much of that has played out in the public comments period of the biweekly city council meetings, which often get saltier and more personal than those of neighboring cities.
Mayor Bill Hodge, for one, has had enough of that reputation, saying the recent bouts of personal, profanity-laden attacks on city administrators and council members have gone too far. Allegations of corruption, bribery, drug use, and even “illicit sexual activity” have marred council meetings in recent weeks.
On Oct. 2, before public comments began at that night’s council meeting, Hodge addressed the audience in a wide-ranging speech calling for an end to the “slanderous remarks” and personal attacks. He alleged they are being made by what he has described previously as a handful of meeting regulars who Hodge has declined to name in separate conversations with this newspaper.
Frequent critics at meetings include Jason Jung, a former Calexico police officer who is now a private investigator, former mayor and council member Joong Kim, and Pedro Ortiz, whose attacks in Spanish often target City Manager David Dale.
“I feel that it’s necessary that I speak to you and point certain things out,” Hodge said. “In a democracy, the public has the right to speak during city council public comments to give constructive criticism in a civil and appropriate manner. You have the right to criticize the city council and administration on performance and accountability accompanied with facts and evidence.”
He continued: “What is not right is to make personal, slanderous remarks and attack by defamation of character. I will use the gavel to silence you if you call council members or staff and administration --- and I’m going to be specific --- words like liars, corrupt, cowards, useless or any other demeaning words or the use of profanity.
“I will stop you if you make serious allegations, especially without proof, about the council or administration; for example, this is specific, taking drugs or involving illicit sexual activity or taking bribes. You will be asked to stop talking and asked to sit down,” Hodge said.
He warned if the public doesn’t comply, offending speakers will be “escorted out of the chamber,” though he did specify by whom.
“Yelling, shouting, attacking, using profanity has no place in the city council, ladies and gentlemen,” he explained. “If you begin to attack personally, yell, become physically belligerent, you will lose your right to speak. … I will not allow any intimidating theatrics,” Hodge added
Hodge also advised his fellow council members against engaging with public comment speakers: “Council, you may retort, clarify, respond during city council comments. And at that time, citizens, when we’re speaking during council comments, you have no right to intervene. Refrain from speaking to the council. And council, do not make personal attacks by name to anyone in the audience.
“Being loud and physically belligerent and trying to smear a councilmen’s or administration’s reputation or character, trying to divide the council or bring down morale will no longer be tolerated,” the mayor continued. “We are here to conduct the city council meetings with proper decorum to get business done in a respectful manner, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
Although public comment that night went on to last about an hour, only a few speakers addressed Hodge’s comments, including Ortiz, Kim and Calexico resident Willie Hermosillo.
“Mr. Hodge, on your speech on speaking, I don’t agree at all. A lot of times, criticism is what we have,” Hermosillo said. “So, if you don’t want to hear negative stuff, you should be different. But I don’t agree with you at all trying to shut the public down. … If you don’t want to get criticized, stay out of public service.”
Kim, whose presence at Calexico council meetings is ubiquitous, speaks during every public comment on a variety of topics critical of the council and city staff. He comments on nearly every item on the council’s action agenda, again being critical of council decisions and choices. He once again railed at Hodge and his fellow council members.
Launching into accusations on two traffic collisions involving City Council Member Rosie Fernandez, Kim referred to her pending criminal cases on hit-and-run driving and driving under the influence of alcohol before turning his sights on the mayor.
“Mr. Hodge, this is not your kingdom. You act like a king. You giving the order, ‘You can’t do that,’ ‘You can’t do that.’ You’re eliminating public right of the speech, right of the freedom of thinking. … Mr. (Council Member Lewis) Pacheco called me a liar without knowing what was really going on,” Kim said.
Hodge then interjected: “Don’t start, Mr. Kim … liar, coward, don’t start …
But Kim persisted and said, “Mr. Pacheco called me liar … You tried to make (these meetings) nicer, but you made it worse. And you’re failing to be transparent to the community. …”
Hodge reiterated his points during council member comments immediately following public comments.
“We don’t want a circus. It’s emotionally upsetting,” he explained of his reasoning.
Softening a bit, Hodge told those in the audience that he wanted them to “feel relaxed and free to come up and criticize and hold us accountable. You have that right.”
No one on the council or among city staff offered any comments on Hodge’s decree.
One of the men Hodge was thought to be referring to, Jung, was not at the Oct. 2 meeting, although he had something to say when contacted by phone the next day.
Jung said Oct. 3 that Hodge’s comments were a violation of the Brown Act, which is California’s open meetings law.
Jung did not clarify what part of the Brown Act Hodge was in violation of, but he continued: “If he shuts down on public comment, then he’s in violation of First Amendment rights. Let him do it. I swear to God I will be one of the first to contact my attorneys and sue them for a First Amendment violation.”
Jung, who often levies allegations of corruption against members of the council, city staff and management of the Calexico Police Department, said, “I can back up everything (I have said) … I can back up with documentation.”