July 2018 incident at City Hall being used by political group
The first round of mailers landed in the mailboxes of voters in Seal Beach last week. Sponsored posts popped up on Facebook and Instagram next. Now, residents are wondering: how did an encounter last summer at City Hall inspire a series of attack ads accusing Seal Beach City Council candidate Joe Kalmick of threatening the Deputy City Clerk?
The ads are hitting in the middle of a mail-in runoff election with Kalmick facing Peter Amundson for the District 1 council seat to represent Old Town and Surfside. The deadline to return mail-in ballots is January 29. The seat is being vacated by Councilwoman Ellery Deaton who is termed out. Deaton has endorsed Amundson.
The mailers are sponsored by a conservative political fundraising group known as the California Taxpayer Protection Committee. Its ads use portions of a Sun News story published Dec. 20, 2018 about City Clerk Robin Roberts’ retirement and the launching of a “Choose Civility” campaign. The ads take quotes from the story out of context and add words like “violence” and “threatening.”
The mailers use still images from a video showing Kalmick standing at the City Clerk’s counter at Seal Beach City Hall. The internet ads direct people to a YouTube page with an edited, silent video (surveillance cameras in City Hall do not record audio) of Kalmick speaking with then-Deputy City Clerk Dana Engstrom at City Hall. (Engstrom was named acting City Clerk last week). That video was posted on Jan.3, 2019. A few days later, two longer, also silent videos from two different camera angles inside City Hall were posted which also show that Councilwoman Deaton was a witness to the interaction at the City Clerk’s counter.
“The use of this video is nothing but dirty politics,” Kalmick said in an interview last week.
In a phone interview, Amundson said it was “absolutely not” him behind the ads. In a follow-up email he emphasized that on the mailer it says the ads were not authorized by a candidate.
“I did not participate in the creation of, nor did I approve of this being sent. To have done so would’ve been against the law,” he wrote.
In the Dec. 20 Sun story, in which Kalmick was not named, Roberts speaks about an increase in the number of residents coming to City Hall agitated and difficult to calm down and describes one incident with an unnamed resident that she said made a punching gesture toward a city employee. The campaign ad uses portions of her quotes, some out of context, and identifies Kalmick as that unnamed resident.
The Sun did not learn that the incident to which Roberts was referring, was a July 31, 2018 encounter allegedly involving Kalmick, until the story was going to press. The Sun News filed a public records request for the surveillance video, and received it on Dec. 28, confirming that it was Kalmick in the video. The Sun has learned that another PRA request was filed and the video was distributed the same day. The Sun has a pending request for information about who else requested the video.
Without sound, what’s seen in the video, including Kalmick’s thrusting of an arm and Engstrom’s reaction to it, is open to interpretation.
In the video, you see Kalmick arrive at City Hall holding a red folder, greet Deaton who is at the City Manager’s counter, and then head to the City Clerk’s counter where Engstrom begins to help him with paperwork.
Within a few minutes you see Kalmick’s demeanor change as he puts his head down and points his fingers to his head like a gun. Deaton walks over and stands beside Kalmick. Around the two-minute mark of the roughly eight-minute long video, you see Kalmick make the quick movement at the core of the controversy.
Engstrom’s face is not visible in the video but she appears not to move in response to Kalmick’s gesture. Deaton is standing next to Kalmick when this happens and has no immediate visible reaction. Approximately 10 seconds later, Deaton begins to walk away, pats Kalmick on the back, and says something before she leaves. Just before the four-minute mark, then-City Clerk Robin Roberts comes into frame and begins assisting Engstrom and Kalmick looking at paperwork. This goes on for a few minutes until the paperwork is put away and Kalmick is seen smiling and saying goodbye. Engstrom is also seen smiling as she goes back to her desk.
Kalmick admits he became frustrated during his visit to City Hall, after learning his hours of attempting to fill out paperwork online overnight was for nothing, but he says he was never angry and did not intend his gesture to be threatening. “This is not the kind of person I am,” he said. “I have no history of untoward behavior toward anybody.”
Roberts said she went to the counter to assist after hearing a change in Engstrom’s voice. After Kalmick left, Roberts said Engstrom looked like she was in shock and requested to see video of the encounter. They ended up calling the Seal Beach Police Department, who responded that day. The next day, officers returned and took an incident report, which the Sun obtained through a Public Records Act request.
The police report details how a Seal Beach Police Officer viewed the surveillance video with Assistant City Manager Patrick Gallegos. Officer E. Tittle writes of the video, “I saw Kalmick being animated as he talked with Engstrom. Kalmick motioned his right hand towards Engstrom’s face. It appeared as if he was jabbing her.”
Neither Kalmick nor Deaton were interviewed for the police report, according to Sgt. Michael Henderson.
The report said Engstrom told police she was “somewhat concerned with the action of Kalmick.” She said she was not hit by Kalmick and “did not feel threatened at the time of the incident” but added she was “worried of any future incidents that Kalmick could be capable of.”
According to the report, Engstrom did not want a police investigation, but “wanted someone other than the police to talk to Kalmick regarding his actions.” The report lists the case status as closed and states that Engstrom, City Manager Jill Ingram and Gallegos “would handle the incident internally, and that a staff member would counsel Kalmick.”
Roberts met with Kalmick, “I was letting him know that this was serious but nobody was filing a complaint,” she said.
“I was mortified,” Kalmick said when he learned during the meeting with Roberts how Engstrom felt.
“I felt like the dialogue went really well,” Roberts said of the meeting. “He was apologetic that it was taken or observed in a way that it wasn’t meant but he wasn’t apologetic that he did it.”
Roberts said Kalmick offered to talk to Engstrom and apologize, but Roberts asked him not to at that time.
“In order to be threatening you have to have an intent to harm. I do not believe there was an intent to harm,” Deaton said of Kalmick’s actions but cautioned, “However, on the other side, he was out of control.”
Deaton said her reaction in the video was her attempt to de-escalate what she saw as an “awkward” situation. Deaton said she walked over to monitor things and then left. “I thought that if I started to leave that would break the flow of what was happening and that he would calm down.”
Council members regularly interact with the City Clerk. Kalmick said that if he were elected he would make an effort to reach out to Engstrom. “I would want to make sure that [Engstrom] would feel comfortable.”
Engstrom declined to comment for this story.
Background on PAC
The group listed on the ads, California Taxpayer Protection Committee, describes itself on its Facebook page as “an organization of individual volunteers and affiliated groups” who think government spending is out of control and taxes are too high. The group has participated in campaigns statewide but, according to filings, has an address based in Elverta, which is 20 miles outside Sacramento and lists attorney Thomas N. Hudson as its treasurer.
Hudson declined to speak with the Sun, referring the matter to Mike Spence, a spokesperson for the group. Spence said it has gotten involved in a lot of races in Orange County, but also emphasized that they are not in contact with any representative of any campaign. He also noted that it would be illegal to do so.
When asked why they are getting involved in a Seal Beach Council runoff race that has fewer than 3,000 voters casting ballots, Spence replied, “Why not?” “That’s the only election going on right now,” Spence added.
“We were looking to see a race we can make an impact in, it’s not unusual,” Spence said.
Spence is a former West Covina Mayor, who resigned in May, after an incident in Costa Mesa, where he was found unconscious in a hotel room, allegedly under the influence of alcohol and drugs, according to a story in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. Spence resigned in May, stating that he would end his tenure on June 1. However, the rest of the council then voted to remove him immediately.
A 2006 blog post on the website FlashReport.org authored by Spence talks about working for Peter Amundson Sr. in his 2006 campaign for Arcadia City Council. Amundson Sr. is currently on the council. When asked about the blog post and his relationship with Amundson Sr. in a phone interview on Monday, Spence confirmed that he knows him and worked for him on the 2006 campaign. “I was helping him,” Spence said of his work. But Spence reiterated that he has not been in touch with anyone related to the current Peter Amundson Jr. campaign in Seal Beach.
A review of recent campaign finance filings shows no direct contributions to the group from anyone with direct ties to Seal Beach or either the Amundson or Kalmick campaigns. The committee has received contributions from a variety of interest groups over the years including, the California Republican Party, the Orange County Employees Association, which represents unionized municipal workers, insurance industry and real estate developer groups.
The group has spent more than $7,400 on the attack ads in Seal Beach since January 7, according to filings with the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
“They spent more this week then we spent in the whole November cycle,” Elizabeth Kane, a Kalmick campaign coordinator said.
The group has sponsored similar ads in other municipal elections in Orange County. According to campaign finance filings, the group spent more than $140,000 in ads against Lauren Johnson-Norris, a Democrat running for City Council in Irvine. In a phone interview last week, Johnson-Norris characterized the group as a “shell PAC” that allows groups to issue “slanderous attack ads” without having direct ties to any particular campaign. “In my opinion, this is exactly why we need campaign finance reform,” she said.
Kalmick said he has contacted the Fair Political Practices Commission regarding the group behind the ads and has made contact with a lawyer regarding the second mailer that refers to “lewd remarks” and “sexual remarks,” something that Kalmick and Deaton said were never part of the conversation that day in July.
In a phone interview, Councilwoman Deaton said shortly after the Sun story was published, she told Amundson that the person described in the story was Kalmick. “It looked to me that this thing was going to blow open,” Deaton said.
“I told Peter because now that the article was out it was inevitable to become public and I didn’t want him blindsided since I was in the video,” Deaton said of the Dec. 20 article in a follow-up email.
“I’m appalled how this event has turned into pure politics,” Robin Roberts said in a recent phone interview. Roberts stood by her belief that Kalmick acted inappropriately during the July encounter but expressed disappointment when learning of the ads. “To me, the [City Clerk’s] office is now being used as a political tool. It’s political. Which is opposite of everything we have tried to do.”