Two campaign workers who helped defeat a rent control measure in Pacifica are facing an array of criminal charges for allegedly falsifying at least 100 signatures. The charges come as a similar campaign to overturn Mountain View's rent control law gains momentum.
As in Mountain View, rising rents on housing have been a lightning rod for controversy in Pacifica. In response, Pacifica's City Council last year enacted a rent control ordinance that largely mirrored Mountain View's voter-approved program that passed in 2016.
In Pacifica last year, an opposition campaign launched to halt that city's rent control ordinance. A political action committee -- the Pacifica Coalition for Housing Equality -- began collecting signatures for a referendum to prevent rent control from being enacted. That group was largely funded by the San Mateo County Association of Realtors and the California Apartment Association (CAA).
The Pacifica effort to defeat rent control drew attention in Mountain View last year after it was revealed that the campaign had hired former Mountain View Councilman Tom Means, a member of the city's Rental Housing Committee. Means was paid $1,500 to author a study portraying rent control as harmful, triggering accusations of a conflict of interest. Means has insisted the work for Pacifica was consistent with his role as an economics professor and had no bearing on his duties overseeing Mountain View's rent control program.
Law enforcement in Pacifica became involved after getting multiple calls last year claiming that signature gatherers were misleading people into signing their names, said San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe. Investigators couldn't hang a criminal case on those allegations, he said. However, they found other discrepancies. They determined that more than 100 people listed on the petition had not in fact signed their names.
Investigators with the district attorney's office last month arrested two people hired to collect signatures for the Pacifica referendum petition for allegedly falsifying dozens of names. The two suspects were identified as Brad and Jentry Jasperson, a married couple from Utah.
The Jaspersons were arrested last month in Reno, Nevada. Together they are facing 21 criminal charges, including perjury, election fraud and identity theft, which could result in up to nine years in prison.
Speaking to the Voice, Wagstaffe emphasized that his investigators found no evidence that the crimes were being directed by anyone else at the Pacifica Coalition for Housing Equality, or other groups. Based on the evidence, it appears the Jaspersons were likely cutting corners to quickly collect signatures, he said. They were paid $5 for each signature.
Shanti Singh, a spokeswoman for Tenants Together, a renter advocacy group based in San Francisco, pointed out that the referendum petition qualified by a margin of only 63 signatures.
"The repeal of Pacifica's tenant protections would not have passed without this," she said. "We can't go back in time and give back these protections, but I think there's a lot of renters who have the right to be very, very upset right now."
In recent weeks, a new political group, Measure V Too Costly, has begun laying the groundwork for a Mountain View ballot measure this November to modify the city's rent control law. They began a polling campaign to gauge local interest and on March 30, filed the initiative language with the city. In order to get a measure on the November ballot, the group will need to collect about 5,500 signatures before a June deadline.
Laura Teutschel, a spokeswoman for Measure V Too Costly who worked for the group opposing the Pacifica measure, denied that the alleged law-breaking in Pacifica had any relevance to Mountain View.
"These people, the Jaspersons, are not known to me or to Measure V Too Costly," Teutschel wrote in a email. "They were employed by the signature-gathering firm hired by the Pacifica Coalition and the Coalition for Housing Equality."
CAA spokesman Joshua Howard expressed support for investigating and prosecuting the alleged voter fraud, but he said any suggestion that his organization was involved was "unfounded and politically motivated."
"CAA respects the democratic process and strongly condemns any actions taken to undermine it," he said in an email.
Rent control is expected to be a major political issue throughout California in this November's election. Seven California cities are expected to bring forward voter measures for rent control, including Santa Cruz, Sacramento and Santa Rosa.