As the Nov. 6 election approaches, Pinellas County officials have gone on a campaign sign-clearing spree, infuriating candidates and drawing complaints that the practice is unfair and politically driven.
In Pinellas, where car culture dominates, political road signs are a core element of campaigns. And they are everywhere, mushrooming on the corners of major intersections, right-of-way strips — where they should not be — and in front of homes and businesses. For months, the county largely has left them alone.
But last Sunday, county officials got aggressive.
The Code Enforcement Office dispatched five trucks and a handful of employees to pull signs off major roads in unincorporated Pinellas. According to candidates, they also removed some from private property, where the owners had given their permission.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he was driving on East Lake Road when he saw a county employee pull one of state Sen. Jack Latvala's signs out of the grass on private property. One of Gualtieri's signs, which he had moved to a new spot months ago after receiving a code enforcement warning, also was confiscated.
"I was pretty astonished," he said. "They told us where it was was fine. It's been there six or seven months. Then all of a sudden on a Sunday morning they're out ripping them up."
Frustrated by the sweep, lawyer Lauralee Westine, Gualtieri's wife, decided to investigate. On Monday, she filed a public records request with the county, asking for 19 pieces of information, including the personnel file of code enforcement director Todd Myers and a record of how much was spent on overtime payments.
"I am just trying to figure out where this came from," she said.
Nancy Bostock, a Republican from Treasure Island who is seeking re-election to her County Commission seat, said county staffers removed one of her signs in front of a gas station even though the owner had agreed to host it.
The timing was odd, she said, and the location was suspect. The neighborhoods where most of the signs were removed — East Lake and Palm Harbor — are Republican strongholds.
"I am very concerned that our county administrator would all of a sudden start to aggressively enforce sign removal policies," she said. "It smacks of politics. And I have serious concerns about his objectivity."
Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala said he did not order the sign sweep; it came after complaints from residents and business owners had piled up. When the county had a bigger staff and budget, it was better at keeping sign violations in check throughout the election season, LaSala said. But with a leaner crew, the county responds when it can.
"There may have been some that were taken down that shouldn't have been," he said. "I've reiterated to the staff that they have to exercise great care in not taking signs off private property."
County officials say future sweeps are possible.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.