The San Benito County District Attorney’s Office is not pursuing criminal charges against former Supervisor Anthony Botelho in relation to the removal of political signage opposing the Strada Verde Innovation Park (SVIP) project. The signs were removed from various locations throughout the county on Nov. 14 and Botelho has admitted to taking them down.
This is the latest development in an ongoing dispute between Botelho and members of the group Citizens Against Strada Verde, whose signs Botelho removed and stashed at his home in San Juan Bautista. The signs have since been recovered, after they were tracked down at Botelho’s residence by individuals affiliated with the group.
Botelho is a spokesperson for the SVIP project and works for the development company that proposed the project.
The San Benito County Sheriff’s Office was contacted twice on Nov. 14 by an unidentified individual reporting the missing signs. The first call came at 2:45pm and it is not clear whether officers responded to a specific location. Another call came hours later at 6:10pm and was related to the initial complaint, according to Sheriff Eric Taylor.
Later that evening, Botelho’s wife called 911 after individuals seeking to recuperate the signs arrived at the home and demanded they be returned, Botelho said, speaking to the Free Lance. Sheriff’s deputies responded to the home, but no arrests were made.
Both parties agreed to an exchange; Botelho returned the signs to the group and in return they deleted a social media post doxxing Botelho. A total of 18 signs were recovered, according to Frank Barragan, a spokesperson for Citizens Against Strada Verde.
The sheriff’s office initially opened a criminal investigation against Botelho for property theft, but after conferring with DA Joel Buckingham’s office, the nature of the charges has changed, Taylor said in a statement to the Free Lance.
“There are different levels of burden for a criminal case to be written by police, and criminal charges to be pursued by the DA,” Taylor said. “The DA educated us on his belief this was non-criminal in nature.”
In an interview with KSBW, Buckingham likened the alleged sign thefts and Botelho’s actions as “someone picking up litter,” and not a criminal action.
The Free Lance reached out to Buckingham to clarify his comments and his reasoning for not pursuing the charges against Botelho. He said that after reviewing the county’s sign ordinance, Buckingham’s office determined that the signs were put up without a permit and outside of the appropriate time window for allowable political signage.
“If citizens see signs that are outside of those (time frames) and they clean up the community, then no, I don’t see us getting involved in that,” Buckingham said.
According to state law, political signs are only allowed to be displayed 90 days prior to and 10 days after an election. Otherwise, temporary permits must be obtained through a local municipality. In San Benito County, the sign ordinance requires a permit that allows the use of a temporary sign for a specified 100-day period.
None of the anti-Strada Verde signs in question had been granted a temporary sign permit, Buckingham said.
The county ordinance also prohibits advertising signs that include the words “stop,” “look” or “listen.” Buckingham said that citizens are not barred from removing signs that violate county and state ordinances.
Botelho has previously stated that he was committing an “act of community service” by taking the signs down from a public right-of-way.
Barragan questions why Botelho took it upon himself to enforce a county ordinance and argues that his motivation was to stifle political debate.
“Who made him the county enforcer of ordinances? I have never heard of a more ridiculous excuse—it is just one more attempt made up after the fact to cover up his and Strada Verde’s illegal activities,” Barragan said in an email.
Barragan previously stated that each sign cost his group around $350. By this estimate the value of the recovered signs would run up to $6,300. Under California law, any stolen property valued at more than $950.00 is considered grand theft.
Buckingham said that even if Botelho had not returned the signs, he would not have been charged.
“Due to the fact that the signs were not permitted, outside the time period for ‘political signs,’ and of a prohibited form, there is not a cognizable property interest in the sign,” Buckingham said. “Much like if one were to distribute leaflets or flyers, individuals picking them up or throwing them away would not be prosecuted.”
However, Buckingham said that if he were in Botelho’s position, he would have thought twice about taking the signs.
“I guess the only thing I would say is that, from a position of wisdom, I would probably not do this myself,” Buckingham said.