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Daily Pilot

Group: Election sign vandalism caught on tape

Video shows an unidentified man ripping up a '3Ms' sign, pulling out a Measure V sign and tossing it into a driveway. All sides say thefts are especially bad this year.

By Bradley Zint

6:19 PM PDT, October 22, 2012

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The Costa Mesa Taxpayers Assn. is offering a $500 reward for information leading to the identification of a man seen in a video destroying campaign signs.

The video shows him taking a "Yes on Measure V" sign and a "3Ms" sign — which supports Councilmen Gary Monahan and Steve Mensinger and Planning Commission Chairman Colin McCarthy in their bids for City Council — ripping the 3Ms sign and throwing the pieces into a bush.

The Measure V sign, which supports a city charter for Costa Mesa, appears to be thrown off into a residential driveway but not torn.

CMTA organizers said the incident happened Saturday night in a grassy public right-of-way at the northwest corner of Fair and Columbia drives.

The Costa Mesa Police Department confirmed receiving a report of possible damage and theft of campaign signs at that area about 9:10 p.m. Saturday. Police met a private investigator there who was hired by a campaigning council member, according to a news release. They did not name the investigator or council member.

The case is being investigated, said city CEO Tom Hatch.

He also said in a prepared statement that the city is "conducting a separate and confidential personnel/administrative investigation."

City spokesman Bill Lobdell declined to give further context on the statement.

In the video posted Sunday on CMTA's YouTube account, the man appears to be white, tall, bald and wearing a long goatee. He is walking barefoot and is accompanied by a dog.

In the nearly two-minute video, he did not touch a sign for City Council candidate Harold Weitzberg, who is running on a slate opposed to the 3Ms.

The identity of the videographer, or whether it was the private investigator whom police met, could not be confirmed.

According to the city's zoning code, campaign signs are permitted in some public rights-of-way between 6 a.m. Friday and 6 p.m. Sunday, providing they meet other requirements for size, height, identification and certain location parameters.

The fiscally conservative, grassroots CMTA has endorsed the 3Ms and Measure V.

Robert Dickson, a planning commissioner and CMTA member, said he was in charge of putting the signs up this weekend along Fair Drive. He placed them there, found them destroyed and photographed the aftermath.

While Dickson said he understands the inevitable reality of signs being stolen or taken down — he dubbed it "signs gamesmanship" — he called the degree of violence against them this year a new extreme.

Many have been stabbed with a knife, Dickson said, and one in front Fairview Community Church had "a huge blotch" of chewing tobacco, or something looking like it.

"It's obvious that whomever did this last weekend, they wanted us to see, or someone to see, what they had done, because [the signs] were ripped up and thrown on the ground," he said. "It looked like a crime scene. There were shreds of stuff all over the place."

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'It's gotten beyond ridiculous'

Sign stealing, trampling and destruction — no side of this year's election has been unaffected throughout the heated campaign season.

CMPD took the unprecedented step earlier this month of sending officers to investigate reported thefts. In previous years, police would only take reports over the phone or online.

One sign along 19th Street between Santa Ana and Orange avenues was paintballed, torn down and knifed, said Jim Fitzpatrick, CMTA president and a director on the sanitary district's board.

"What I think is different and unique about this stuff is the violence that occurred," he said.

Costa Mesans for Responsible Government (CM4RG) has seen between 200 and 250 of their signs stolen or destroyed, said Mike Harmanos, the organization's ground-campaign coordinator. He estimated the signs' worth at about $500 to $600.

It's all a "distraction from the real issues, and that's not what elections are about," he said.

"Costa Mesans for Responsible Government does not condone, in any way, shape or form, any sort of illegal activity," he added.

His organization has filed police reports for signs stolen from private, noncommercial properties when homeowners were willing to give their name and address for the reports.

Sue Lester, a member of CM4RG and former council candidate, said supporters from the two camps are committing wrongdoings.

"It's gotten beyond ridiculous on both sides," she said, adding that she would equally report illegal behavior on campaign signs that don't necessarily support her candidates and causes.

CM4RG President Robin Leffler said signs in front of her Mesa Verde home have been both torn up and stolen.

There was also an incident where one was thrown in the street; its metal wires were a safety hazard for passing cars, she said.

"Sometimes you see these mangled signs, and you think, 'What violence. Why is somebody doing this?'"

Then there was the recent saga of signs along Mesa Verde Drive that were posted, stolen, then reposted.

"It was like up down, up down, up down, and each time it was a diminishing amount of signs," she said. "We had fewer signs to put out. It was very strange."

bradley.zint@latimes.com

Twitter: @bradleyzint