A nearly five-year legal fight between Alameda County and a property owner he believes anti-government signage he placed along Interstate 580 constitutes free speech took a strange turn Tuesday afternoon. Before the Board of Supervisors voted to deny an appeal of an east county zoning decision ordering removal of the anti-government billboards, Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty accused the appellant, Michael Shaw, of issuing a threat against him.
The threat by Shaw, however, was not readily apparent. Shaw told Haggerty in passing that he intends to repost the billboards viewed for years by motorists driving eastbound on Interstate 580 through Castro Valley towards Dublin and Pleasanton. The signs took particular issue with the Associated Bay Area Governments (ABAG), a regional body made up of elected officials from the nine Bay Area counties. A digital billboard in the same area once featured Haggerty in a derogatory light. Haggerty is currently the vice-chair of ABAG.
It’s been 20 years of pure harassment from your board.—Michael Shaw, free speech defender who says the county violated his free speech with a zoning ordinance that forces him to take down political billboards he erected on Interstate 580.
After Shaw announced his intention to reinstate the signs, Haggerty cut him off. “That sounds like a threat.”
“How so?” said Shaw.
“You just threatened you’re going to put up signs against me,” said Haggerty.
“Not necessarily,” Shaw responded.
“Well, that’s what I heard,” said Haggerty.
“We haven’t decided what we’re going to put up,” said Shaw, who suggested the signage might be placed on the digital billboard.
“I know based on how maybe I vote,” Haggerty said, again cutting off the speaker.
“You can conclude what you want,” said Shaw.
Haggerty then stopped the planning meeting to elicit direction from county counsel. “I feel like my vote was threatened,” he said. Somewhat flummoxed by the question, county counsel paused before asking whether felt he could no longer render an impartial decision on the appeal. “I feel like I can be impartial,” said Haggerty. “I’m more worried about the threat.”
“I didn’t know it was okay to threaten a public official,” he added. “I’ve been doing this 22 years and I’ve never been threatened on a vote in a public meeting. I don’t know how to respond to it.”
A brief recess commenced before Alameda County Counsel Donna Ziegler said since Haggerty stated he could be impartial, the vote could proceed.
A certain amount of subtext, however, exists between the county, Haggerty, and Shaw, who represents Citizens for Free Speech. Shaw successfully sued the county in 2002 over what he deemed was their intransigence over a conditional-use permit for Lockaway, the self-storage business he owns near the location of the billboards. In 2010, Shaw claimed the county doubled his property tax bill without notice as retribution. In the meantime, he became a strong defender of property rights and virulent opponent of ABAG.
“ABAG rearranges American local government into an unelected regional form of government replacing the power of local, city, and county governments,” said Shaw, who later referred to Haggerty as “ABAG leader.”
“I suspect this is why you have been convened to destroy our billboards. Your participation in this serves no one, just tyranny,” he said.
Last year, Shaw funded anti-ABAG digital ad on Highway 101, that read “ABAG is a Soviet council” and “ABAG loves San Jose.”
A combination of his legal fight with the county over the anti-government billboards and free speech long predates Tuesday’s hearing. When the county ordered Shaw to remove the billboards, he sued. A court later found the county’s zoning ordinance violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The county then amended the ordinance and renewed its efforts to force Shaw to remove the signs. Today, only the digital billboard remain. Shaw said Tuesday that he removed the signs in order to “alleviate pressure” on county officials.
The Board of Supervisors Planning Committee voted Tuesday to deny Shaw’s appeal. He told the board that he will file another lawsuit. Last month, he sold his interest in the self-storage business in order to fund any future lawsuits.