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Gift bags handed out to senior citizens have become an unlikely political football for Chula Vista’s elected officials.
Councilman John McCann sent about 200 bags to residents of the Congregational Tower, a senior living apartment complex in downtown Chula Vista, last year. The bags, which were bought with public funds, were addressed to individual tenants. Inside, recipients found facemasks, hand sanitizer, a letter from McCann and a list of phone numbers for public agencies. That list of numbers also had a photo of McCann on it, and the slogan, “Councilman John McCann. A Leader We Know. A Leader We Trust,” written in Spanish and English.
McCann represents northwestern Chula Vista. He said the gift bags were an innocent gesture to help seniors outside of his own district and doesn’t understand why anyone would have a problem with that.
“If they want to complain about me helping seniors during a pandemic, that’s their issue,” McCann said, referring to the mayor and City Council members who have taken issue with the gift bags.
Mayor Mary Casillas Salas and Council members Jill Galvez and Stephen Padilla see McCann’s gift bags as a political stunt by a termed-out councilman who used public money to raise his name recognition in anticipation of a 2022 mayoral campaign.
Salas directed her chief of staff to file an official complaint with the California Fair Political Practice Commission alleging McCann used tax dollars to campaign.
“Quite frankly, this was being utilized not for the purposes of disseminating information, which is what you’ll hear, but for the purposes of self-promotion,” Salas said. “It does not create a level playing field for the other people running for office.”
The rest of the City Council retaliated by voting on new policies that limit Council members’ ability to communicate with residents outside their own district. The new rules specifically prohibit Council members from using public money to send unsolicited messages to people outside their district (although they are still allowed to use their own money).
Multiple Council members complained McCann was blurring the lines between constituent outreach and campaigning by sending out unsolicited birthday messages.
“If it’s just ‘happy birthday’ I think that’s a little bit too cute by half as they say,” Padilla said before the vote. “Maybe it’s not about an issue but it’s about driving up name ID.”
That resolution passed on a 4-0 vote during the June 15 City Council meeting, which McCann did not attend.
There’s one aspect of the ordeal that everyone seems to agree on: that it’s taken up way too much of the city’s time, resources and attention.
“It’s embarrassing us,” Galvez said.
Galvez and McCann Butt Heads Over Emails
Galvez’s grievances with McCann are not limited to the gift bags.
In June, she publicly accused McCann of taking contact information from an email list that Galvez accidentally leaked to more than 900 people last year. Galvez also takes issue with McCann ending his emails with the phrase, “Your Councilman, John McCann,” which she says has created confusion among people in her City Council district about who actually represents them.
Galvez’s email blunder happened April 2020 when Galvez was trying to transfer her email list from her work computer to her personal computer so she could work remotely. During the transfer, Galvez accidentally emailed the personal contact information of 1,113 people to everyone who subscribes to her monthly newsletter.
When I reported on the leaked contact information, Galvez tried to persuade me to drop the story.
People whose emails Galvez accidentally leaked back in 2020 have been getting emails from McCann. That includes Galvez’ relatives, she said, who do not live in California.
“I believe strongly that Councilman McCann, my colleague, imported all of my email addresses,” Galvez said during the June 1 City Council meeting.
McCann, sitting a few feet away, began shaking his head.
“He’s shaking his head but there’s no possible way you would have my mother’s, my sister’s, my daughter’s, my son’s email addresses,” Galvez said.
During that same meeting, Salas said her granddaughter received a birthday email from McCann.
“I know that my own granddaughter received an unsolicited birthday wish and she said, ‘Why did I get this? It’s really creepy,’” Salas said.
McCann has repeatedly denied putting Galvez’s leaked contacts into his own email list. He said whoever doesn’t want to receive his emails can simply unsubscribe.
“She needs to take responsibility for having the data breach,” he said.
McCann said he asked Galvez to send him a list of the email address she would like him to stop sending messages to, and she has not responded. Galvez confirmed this, and said she shouldn’t have to send him a list.
2022 Mayoral Election
The fights over gift bags and emails are a proxy battle for the upcoming 2022 mayoral election.
Term limits prevent Salas and McCann from running for re-election for the seats they currently occupy. McCann is widely expected to run for mayor.
McCann did not deny those rumors and hinted at a potential announcement soon.
“Give me about a week and then I’ll give you an answer,” he told me.
So far two people have formally announced their mayoral candidacy: Zaneta Encarnacion, the city’s mayor and constituent services manager and a former chief of staff to the president of Southwestern College, and former City Councilman Rudy Ramirez.
Because neither Ramirez not Encarnacion is an incumbent, McCann already has an advantage over them in the mayoral race, Salas said. His alleged use of public funds to increase his name recognition outside the district only increased that advantage, she said.
“Obviously when you’re in office you have the power of incumbency,” she said. “You are able to be out in the public representing the city, so you get access to the people and media. You have points of contact with others that you would not have but for your elected office. When others are running without those connections, they are starting from way back.”
McCann accused Salas of doing the same thing: using her political office to advance her political interests.
“I think that the mayor specifically ordering her chief of staff to file a pollical complaint against me using city time and city computers is not appropriate,” he said.
Salas said it is part of her role as mayor to protect the integrity of the City Council, and that the FPPC is the proper body to weigh those complaints.