80 locals volunteered to get over 12,500 signatures.
Those signature gatherers in front of Home Depot or Ralph’s are usually in it for the money. They might get $3 to $5 per signature. They may or may not care much about the point of the petition.
But what if you’re a homeowner who volunteers to gather signatures? You’re doing it for the cause, not the money. In Oceanside, two petition gatherers who wanted to get the controversial North River Farms development on the ballot for an up-or-down decision by the public, are now facing thousands of dollars in untold legal fees to defend themselves. They are getting sued by Integral Communities, the developer of that 585-home development in the South Morro Hills area of North Oceanside. The lawsuit claims the gatherers used fraud and misrepresentation.
The lawsuit claims the gatherers used fraud and misrepresentation.
Two local women who gathered signatures were mentioned by name in the lawsuit filed last month. And now a private investigator is going door to door to Oceanside homes to interview more local signature gatherers, possibly to get them added to the lawsuit.
“I want to know how they even found out who we were and where we lived,” said one person contacted but who did not want to be identified out of fear of legal retribution. “They either want to sue us as well or they are simply do this to intimidate us…We are telling anyone who is approached by this man to not say anything except, ‘Please, get off my property.’”
Police speak to signature gatherer outside Frazier Farms.
That investigator who visited Oceanside homes was Edward Beyer of TransWest Investigations, Inc. of Los Angeles. He contacted at least six people allegedly connected with the North River Farms development referendum. “He had a whole list of people he was going to see,” said one person contacted. Beyer indicated that he was working for the Sutton Law Firm of Los Angeles, the firm that is representing Integral and that drafted and filed the lawsuit.
Emailed questions to Beyer were not returned. A request for comment to Bradley Hertz of Sutton Law Firm was not returned.
Some 80 locals volunteered to get over 12,500 signatures. The county registrar’s office is verifying their validity. If at least 9,609 signatures are deemed valid, the citizens of Oceanside will vote on the North River Farms development in November.
One Fallbrook-area resident who has tangled with the Sutton Law Firm, says that he is not surprised it hired a private investigator to visit volunteer referendum signature gatherers at their homes.
The man who said he could not speak on the record, says that Sutton Law filed a lawsuit against the citizens who opposed 2016’s Measure B which sought to allow the 1746-home Lilac Hills Ranch development in Valley Center. He says Sutton was funded by Lilac Hills Ranch developer Ranch Capital. Sutton sued over the wording of 16 different statements in the anti-Measure B ballot statement. “They got the judge to agree to two minor changes in wording,” says the Fallbrook man. Measure B ended up being rejected; 64 percent voted against it. But then Sutton/Ranch Capital sued over the legal fees. “It was purely malicious. They do things like this just to deplete the treasury of their opponent. After many months they decided to drop their claim for attorney fees.”
The man says that Sutton sued the SOS group (Safeguard Our San Diego Countryside) in 2018 over Measure A which appears on the March 3 ballot. “This was over a minor financial report disclosure. It was settled out of court for $16,500. It was a bargain. It would have been a lot more had it gone to court. All this litigation is just about taking the wind out of our sails.” He says he suspects that it was the San Diego BIA (Building Industry Association) who paid Sutton for the Measure A litigation.
“Sutton is known for handling these cases which are called ‘risky maneuvers,’ ” says the Fallbrook resident. “They call it risky because they aren’t likely to hold up in court.”
Was the BIA San Diego behind the recent SOS/Measure A lawsuit? Michael McSweeney who handles North County legal affairs for the BIA of San Diego says any questions about the recent Measure A lawsuit would need to answered by fellow BIA employee Matt Adams or his boss President Borre Winckle. Neither responded to a request for comment.
Two local women who gathered signatures, Arleen Hammerschmidt and Kathryn Carbone were mentioned by name in the North River Farms lawsuit filed last month. Hammerschmidt declined to comment for this article. Carbonne’s comment: “Our signature gatherers did nothing wrong. This developer is trying to stall us in exercising our constitutional right to free speech as well as our right to referendum under California law.” She says the Sutton/Integral lawsuit will not stop her. “I’m here to safeguard the community and protect the environment, and I plan to keep doing these two things going forward.”
Two different PACs have been set up to help the defense, Save Our Farmland and Let Oceanside Vote.
The lawsuit filed by Integral/Sutton Law Firm against the signature gatherers claims forgery was used in the gathering of its 12,500 signatures. Oceanside Mayor Peter Weiss was one of three councilmembers who voted to approve the North River Farms project in November. In January Weiss claimed at a city council meeting that his name was forged on the North River Farms petition. He later apologized when it was discovered that a different Oceanside voter also named Peter Weiss signed it lawfully. “I sent the mayor a cease-and-desist notice the day after he said it, and he apologized publicly at the next meeting,” says Carbone.
A call to Integral spokeswoman Mindy Wright requesting comment was not returned.