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The mystery of the missing campaign signs, and how they tie back to the Coastal Commission

First, it was one campaign sign that vanished, then another.

Before long, 10 were missing, then 20, then more.

“I found my sign torn and thrown behind some bushes, next to my fence,” said one resident.

Another resident ran a stakeout with binoculars, watched someone uproot a sign, and notified the police.

What the heck is going on in Pismo?

Well, the trail of mystery and intrigue leads back to my favorite government agency: the California Coastal Commission.

Last week, I drove up the coast to see what I could find out. My plan was to meet with Erik Howell, whose name is on the missing signs.

Howell is running for reelection to the City Council and also happens to serve on the Coastal Commission. He has supporters and he has critics. It was the critics who ordered 50 small white rectangular posters with the words “Integrity Matters,” and a red cross through Howell’s name.

Citizens for a Better Pismo Beach is a small group of folks who don’t like the way Howell has conducted himself on the Coastal Commission. The group is running ads, distributing fliers in addition to signs, and mounting a case against Howell on its website, hoping to upend his City Council reelection bid. Howell is one of four candidates running for two open council seats. If he loses in Pismo, he’ll be forced to give up his seat on the Coastal Commission.

Howell has ignored my emails and phone calls in the past, so I thought I’d try knocking on his door instead.

I didn’t have to. The front door was open when I arrived. Howell was sitting on the sofa inside but told me he was busy. Next thing I knew, he was coming out of the house, putting on his shoes, and hurrying across the street to his car.

I told him I was flexible. I could come back in the evening.

Howell said his campaign was going well, but he really had to run. He took my phone number, drove away and never returned my subsequent messages.

Howell is one of the seven commissioners who voted in February to fire Coastal Commission Executive Director Charles Lester, whose dogged defense of Coastal Act building restrictions rubbed a lot of developers raw. He also voted for a controversial housing development in Pismo — a development that will block ocean views for motorists on the coast highway.

As a councilman, Howell was opposed to the project, which was later modified when it got to the Coastal Commission.

Residents still didn’t like the project, but they say Howell told them it was sure to be approved by the Coastal Commission because the developer’s lobbying would be done by a powerful hired gun — Susan McCabe.

On the eve of the commission’s vote on the project in November 2015, Pismo residents were shocked to see Howell and McCabe dining together at a restaurant.

The next morning, they went from shocked to incensed when Howell voted to approve the project.

And then, a few months later, they made a discovery that boiled their blood.

“Here is your smoking gun,” Pismo resident Ed Henry wrote to me in a February email. “My daughter found this online.”

What Lindsey Henry had found was a record of a $1,000 donation to Howell’s City Council reelection campaign from Antoinette DeVargas.

Who’s she?

The domestic and business partner of Susan McCabe. On the campaign disclosure form, DeVargas’ occupation was listed as “Operations Mgr. McCabe & Company.”

The donation was made in September 2015. Howell’s vote in favor of the project came two months later.

Even if that was legal, residents screamed, the stink was worse than yesterday’s chum. They filed a complaint against Howell with the state Fair Political Practices Commission, arguing that he should have recused himself from voting on the Pismo project — and other Coastal Commission projects represented by McCabe. The FPPC investigation is ongoing.

Howell was also named in a September lawsuit accusing him and four other coastal commissioners of violating disclosure laws by not properly reporting private conversations about matters before the commission. The suit accuses Howell of 96 such violations.

It’s a shame I didn’t get a chance to talk to him about all of this, and how it might be affecting his campaign. If he loses the election and is forced off the Coastal Commission because of it, he would be the second commissioner to meet that fate, following Martha McClure. She too received a campaign donation from Antoinette DeVargas, joined the posse that calf-roped the executive director, and screamed at me when I asked why she stayed at the home of a consultant with business before the commission.

Do you see why this is my favorite public agency?

Getting back to the signs, they were disappearing almost as soon as they were spiked into the ground.

“I put one up at Marilyn’s house at 9 a.m., and by the time I roll back at 11 o’clock, it’s gone,” said Jim Harris of Citizens for a Better Pismo.

He’s talking about Marilyn Hansen’s house.

“I drove by and I said to myself, ‘The sign is gone,’” said Hansen, who, by the way, filed a lawsuit against Howell earlier this year over the controversial housing development.

Hansen went searching for the sign and found it.

“Somebody tore it down because the wind couldn’t do that. It’s impossible,” she said. “And I could see how it was torn from the staples that were in it and stashed in the bushes.”

Ed Henry decided to do a little detective work. He put up a sign on Highland Drive, parked about a block away with a pair of binoculars, and waited to see what happened.

“It wasn’t 45 minutes,” said Henry, who saw a light-colored Hyundai approach. “Someone got out, removed the sign and drove off.”

It happened so quickly, all Henry could do was snap a quick photo of the departing car. Then he drove to the Police Department to report the incident.

I checked the license in the photo, and the DMV reports that the Hyundai is registered to Don Stewart.

Who’s he?

Public records show that Stewart and Erik Howell live at the same address in Pismo. Stewart is running for reelection to the local school board, and his campaign sign is stuck in the frontyard next to Howell’s campaign sign.

Stewart did not respond to my many attempts to reach him. I guess it’s contagious.

The same day Henry reported to police that his sign was confiscated, Citizens for a Better Pismo got an email from a Don Stewart.

“At the request of the property owner, I have removed your signs from his … property,” said the message, which added that the “signs” — note the plural — could be picked up from the owner of the property. “They were illegally placed there without the owner’s permission.”

Henry messaged Stewart back to ask if he might know something about where all the other missing signs might be. He said he has gotten no response.

With the election fast approaching, I have two pieces of advice for Pismo Beach.

Like the missing signs say, integrity matters.

And vote early and often.

Get more of Steve Lopez's work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez

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