Sign of the times? Heated election season brings campaign poster vandalism, 'theft'

John Inks election sign
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
During the last week of August, unknown suspects vandalized several John Inks for Mountain View City Council election signs, including this one on Cuesta Drive near the Montalto Drive intersection.

The recent vandalism and theft – or perceived theft – of local election signs has some residents questioning the rules governing such advertising and the penalties associated with tampering with it.

During the last week of August, unknown suspects used black spray paint to deface election signs for Mountain View City Council candidate John Inks erected at several of the city’s public locations for them, including ones at the corner of El Camino Real and Shoreline Boulevard, at the intersection of Cuesta Drive and Grant Road and near the intersection of Cuesta and Montalto drives.

“You couldn’t even tell whose sign it was unless you happened to have seen it before,” said Mountain View resident Steve Nelson, who on Sept. 2 notified local newspapers of the Shoreline vandalism through an email condemning the crime and urging candidates to “restrain their own agitators, curb their own posses and leash their own dogs.”

Nelson, a candidate for the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District Board of Trustees, is no stranger to such political season antics. He said his signs were stolen or strategically placed on the ground during his successful 2012 run for the Mountain View Whisman School District Board of Trustees.

“That’s another technique if you don’t want to get caught with the goods: Just make the message so it isn’t visible,” he said. “Visibility in political campaigns is an important item for candidates – and voters.”

If caught, however, the penalties for election sign tampering can be serious. For damage less than $400, vandalism is a misdemeanor and punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a maximum fine of $1,000. For property damage of $400 or more, the penalties may include a jail sentence between one and three years and/or a fine of up to $10,000.

Theft of items valued at $950 or less is considered petty left and could result in a fine of up to $1,000 and/or six months in jail.

San Antonio squabble

“Prop C. Supporters Stealing Nancy Signs and putting in their own,” read a post Los Altos resident Gary Anderson published last week. Anderson, a former member of Nancy Bremeau’s campaign for Los Altos City Council, has since removed the post, but the related dispute is a testament to the nature of Los Altos politics in a year when the city’s future development is so hotly debated.

Measure C is also known as the Protect Our Parks and Public Lands Initiative. If it passes, the measure would amend the city’s general plan to require voter approval for the sale, lease or rezoning of any parks, open space or public land larger than 7,500 square feet.

Michael Ellerin is the subject of Anderson’s ire. As the Measure C campaign’s treasurer, he’s been scouting homes along major city thoroughfares as potential sites for signs. He said he approached the San Antonio Road driveway Anderson’s home shares with the home of Don and Susana Leung because it featured “Nancy Bremeau” signs.

“I think that’s a wonderful point to make with people that just because you’re involved with a candidate that’s pro-development and anti-Measure C doesn’t mean you can’t be in favor of Measure C,” Ellerin said.

Ellerin said he spoke with Susana Leung about Measure C, convinced her to erect a Measure C sign and then mistakenly told her she had to remove one of the three 2-foot-by-1.5-foot Bremeau signs at the driveway entrance in order to do so because the city limits election signage. He told Leung he would return the Bremeau sign to her campaign.

“Now, in the future, I won’t touch a sign because of this hotbed of controversy and what’s being made of it,” he said.

Anderson’s post instructed the Measure C campaign to return the Bremeau sign and collect the Measure C sign.

“We acknowledge that there is room for two different opinions on whether the city should lease portions of our parking plazas for public-private partnerships to build community resources like a live theater, but there is no room in Los Altos for dirty politics,” Anderson wrote in the post.

Ellerin apologized to Anderson, and the two men exchanged signs.

Campaign sign regulations

Each local city has specific campaign sign regulations outlined in its municipal code. In Los Altos, each residential dwelling unit is allowed a cumulative display area of 12 square feet, meaning each can feature four of the typical corrugated plastic yard signs, like the ones next to the Anderson-Leung driveway. Mountain View’s municipal code limits political signs to 16 square feet. Los Altos Hills differentiates between wall signs, which may not exceed 6 square feet, and freestanding or suspended signs, which may not exceed 6 square feet or 3 feet in height.

Unlike Mountain View, neither Los Altos nor Los Altos Hills offers public land for campaign advertising, and complaints reported to the cities generally pertain to signage erected in public rights-of-way, according to officials.

“We really try to remain content neutral and just make sure if something is posted illegally, it’s taken down,” said Sarah Henricks, Los Altos deputy city clerk.

Cumulatively, Los Altos Hills features very few campaign signs at all this election season, said Deborah Padovan, the city’s clerk. She recalled a single incident during the 2016 presidential election cycle when someone graffitied a Hillary Clinton sign with a pro-Donald Trump message.

“We’re pretty sleepy up here,” Padovan said.

As for that contested Measure C sign? It returned to the Anderson-Leung driveway a few days later, courtesy of neighbor Roberta Phillips, a friend of Ellerin’s. Phillips said she called Don Leung to apologize for the misunderstanding.

“I said, ‘Would it be OK with you if I brought the sign back to you?’” Phillips said. “And he said, ‘Sure. Bring it and put it back up.’”

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