San Juan Capistrano

                                      Removal of Signs Leads to Resignation 

When a group of residents fighting the expansion of the SDG&E substation in San Juan planned a rally, they couldn’t have imagined they would also be fighting City volunteers, one of whom admitted to taking the signs they posted in advance of their rally. The signs were subsequently thrown in the trash.
SJC residents hold rally signs taken by City volunteers
According to rally organizers, they followed the City’s Municipal Code in posting the signs however, on Thursday morning prior to the rally on Sunday, May 24, the signs were taken just three hours after being posted. A witness reported that he saw ‘two City volunteers on bikes’ pulling up the signs and taking them to a City truck parked in the SDG&E driveway on Camino Capistrano. 

Political campaign signs are protected; even if the signs violated city code, which the group maintains they did not, the City is required to keep the signs and return them. A member of the group attempted to contact the City Manager and City Planning Director to find out who took the signs, why and where they had taken them, but stated they received no response.
Members of the group then contacted the Sheriff’s Department to ask that their signs be returned immediately, as their rally was only three days away.

The group learned that the signs were taken by two volunteers with the City’s Associated Senior Action Program (ASAP) which is under the direction of the OC Sheriff’s Department. One of the ASAPs, Steve Behmerwohld, who has been with the program for a number of years, admitted to taking the signs and putting them in the back of a City truck parked in SDG&E’s driveway. Sheriff’s deputies reportedly later found the signs in a dumpster.

Behmerwohld stated during Oral Communications at a City Council meeting following the rally that, “ASAPs pick up [illegal] signs all the time; it’s part of the job.” However, as residents from the group opposing the SDG&E expansion pointed out, the signs were legal and were permitted, which residents felt the experienced ASAP volunteer should have known. They also questioned his ties to SDG&E.

In fact, Behmerwohld admitted at the council meeting that he is indeed friends with SDG&E’s External Affairs Manager Duane Cave who is involved in the PR effort to promote the SDG&E project in San Juan. Some group members questioned whether Behmerwohld’s support of Cave and the project was the reason he removed the signs opposing the project. 

Several of the signs were dropped off at Duane Cave’s front door, a fact addressed by Cave when he spoke at the same council meeting as Behmerwohld, during Oral Communications. Cave explained that two signs were placed on his front door step but since it was a three-day week end, he did not want to spend his personal time returning them. 

According to California Penal Code 490.2. (a); “A person who takes, possesses, damages, reuses, or moves any political sign or signs without authorization from the owner of the sign or signs and with the intent to prevent, substantially alter, or substantially obscure the communication of the sign, is guilty of an infraction or a misdemeanor. Upon a second or subsequent conviction of a person under this section, the person shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year, a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars ($2,000), or both.”

 Shortly after the signs were taken, the residents group contacted the OC Sheriff’s Department in order to file a police report. The group members claim that the two deputies who responded refused initially to take a report, so they then contacted Lt. Scott Spalding who reportedly told them he would look into it “next week” which would have been after the rally and therefore, too late. As a result, the group members said that they insisted on filing a police report immediately in order to get their signs back. When Lt. Spalding met with the group, he brought with him some of their signs that had been retrieved from a dumpster. 

According to group members, Lt. Spalding indicated that Behmerwohld would be suspended for removing the signs however, Behmerwohld instead resigned. The other ASAP volunteer, whose name was not available at time of publication, was reportedly also suspended indefinitely for his role in removing the legal signs.

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