By Jill Cowan and Bradley Zint
4:10 PM PST, January 23, 2013
A Costa Mesa city employee suspected of illegally tampering with campaign signs has been charged with misdemeanor vandalism, prosecutors said Wednesday.
If convicted, Steven Charles White, 39, of Costa Mesa, faces a sentence ranging from probation to a year in jail, a $1,000 fine and restitution, the Orange County district attorney's office said in a news release.
Prosecutors said White, a city maintenance worker at the time, on Oct. 20 removed and destroyed two campaign signs posted along Fair Drive. One supported council candidates Steve Mensinger, Gary Monahan and Colin McCarthy, who campaigned together as the "3Ms"; the other supported Measure V, the proposed city charter.
The election was highly charged with many city employee associations and a community group opposing the 3Ms, who called for public-employee pension reforms and the charter measure, and a taxpayers group strongly supporting that measure and the candidates.
White has been on paid administrative leave since shortly after the incident pending the results of a separate personnel investigation, said city spokesman Bill Lobdell.
"The city's administrative investigation has been completed, and the confidential personnel process is continuing," he said.
White's arraignment is scheduled for Feb. 25 at the Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach.
On Oct. 24, prosecutors told the Daily Pilot they were considering charges against White, but did not announce their decision until Wednesday. The Pilot withheld identifying White at the time because he had not yet been officially accused of a crime.
Prosecutors said a private investigator who was looking into campaign sign vandalism videotaped White's actions. A campaigning council member hired the investigator who shot the footage near the grassy right-of-way at Fair and Columbia drives less than half a mile from City Hall, Costa Mesa police said at the time.
White lives near that intersection, according to the most recent voter registration records available.
In the nearly two-minute video, which the Costa Mesa Taxpayers Assn. posted on its YouTube account, a barefoot man accompanied by a dog is pictured ripping the 3Ms' sign and throwing its pieces in a bush. The Measure V sign looked to be thrown in a driveway but not torn. A sign supporting council candidate Harold Weitzberg, who campaigned in opposition to the 3Ms and council majority, was untouched.
At the time, the CMTA — a fiscally conservative grass-roots group that endorsed the 3Ms and Measure V — offered a $1,000 reward for the identity of the man in the video.
The video was one incident among many in the especially heated November general election, which pitted supporters of the council majority against its critics and public employee unions.
All sides — including the CMTA, 3Ms, Costa Mesans for Responsible Government and other candidates — reported unusually high amounts of vandalism against their signs. CMTA lost more than 100 signs along Fair Drive alone, organizers said at the time, which is why the videographer targeted that area.
That White was charged is emblematic of inequality that exists in the local political realm, said Orange County Employees Assn. spokeswoman Jennifer Muir.
"In a county that is steeped in political corruption, which is overlooked for the rich and powerful, the fact that a low-paid working man is charged for removing a lawn sign during a contested election speaks volumes about the disparity in the administration of justice in Orange County," she said.
Muir added that the prosecution of White for what she called "the sort of shenanigans that happen every election," is a questionable use of public resources.
"The county could be using its public resources to safeguard the community," she said.
Mensinger, who was elected to the council and has since become mayor pro tem, said Wednesday that the charges are another step toward putting the incident in the past.
"I mean, my thought is I'm glad the issue has come to resolution," he said. "There's melancholy — I don't like to see anybody affected by stupid actions."
And he stressed that while the incident inevitably "reflects on the city because [White] worked for the city, but it doesn't reflect on all the employees."
"I just want to get this behind us and move forward," he said.
CMTA President Jim Fitzpatrick, who was recently appointed to the Planning Commission, couldn't be reached as of Wednesday afternoon.