BROOKSVILLE — Mysteriously disappearing campaign signs are as much a part of the political season as stump speeches and slick fliers in the mail.
But there was no mystery Sunday evening when Hernando County Commission no-party candidate Greg Sheldon found one of his signs pulled out of the ground and set aside near the Winn-Dixie store in Ridge Manor West.
One of his opponents, Republican Jason Sager; Sager's press liaison, Danielle Alexandre, and another man were replacing Sheldon's sign with one of Sager's.
And Sheldon wasn't the only witness.
The Democratic candidate in the District 3 race, Diane Rowden, sat nearby in her Smart car, hauling a trailer emblazoned with her picture, website and her "Vote for Rowden" message.
The man with Sager was yelling to Rowden that her signs in the same area were illegal. As Rowden began to pull away, Sheldon said, her husband, Jay, waved at Sager's crew, and the man with Sager offered the Rowdens an extended middle finger.
Sheldon said that when he pulled up to them, they were still laughing about the send-off they had given the Rowdens. But they stopped when he walked over and demanded to know why they had taken down his sign, Sheldon said.
He said that both Sager and Alexandre repeatedly told him that they had permission from the property owner, local real estate broker Gary Schraut, to remove illegally placed signs. Schraut, a staunch Republican, said he had not granted permission for Sheldon to place signs there, but that Sager did have permission.
On Wednesday, Alexandre said that is not what was said. No one ever mentioned Schraut's name. And she said they told Sheldon that they were going to put his sign up again when they finished erecting the Sager sign.
She said she also didn't see anyone offer the Rowdens an obscene gesture.
"That's a lie,'' Sheldon said.
He said he saw the gesture. He also said he didn't even know who the property owner was until they told him. And while they offered to let him put his sign back up, he declined once he learned that the property owner didn't want his sign there.
Sheldon said he kept telling Sager that he could not touch his signs. Only code enforcement officers or the property owner could remove the signs, Sheldon said he told his opponent.
He said both Alexandre and Sager repeatedly said that Schraut had given them permission to remove the signs.
Alexandre said that Sager was not available to comment about the incident on Wednesday. In anticipation that someone might raise questions, he did give Alexandre a written comment.
"Mr. Sheldon is obviously inexperienced in where he can and cannot legally place his campaign signs,'' Sager wrote. "When I informed him that his signs were illegally placed he and his wife promptly removed them from the private property and I commend him."
Schraut said Wednesday that he did not ask Sager to remove signs from the property or give him permission to do so. Schraut wanted them gone, though. On Sept. 16, he wrote to the head of the local Democratic Party, asking that he inform Democratic candidates that they did not have his permission to put signs on any of his properties.
If they were not taken down by last Friday, he said, he was going to place stickers on the signs saying they were illegal. Schraut warned that he would then remove the illegally placed signs himself.
He listed several of his properties where he and his friends have seen Democrats' signs, including Sunrise Plaza in Ridge Manor West and along the State Road 50 truck bypass on the west side of Brooksville.
Sheldon said he had noticed as he drove along the truck route Sunday on the way to Ridge Manor that two signs of his signs had been replaced by Sager signs.
Rowden said she just happened to be in Ridge Manor West at the same time Sunday because she wanted to make sure no one had placed stickers on her signs. She said she had placed signs in that location during previous campaigns and never had any issues.
Schraut said the bottom line is that people need to ask permission before they place political signs on private property. He said several candidates besides Sager had sought and gotten his permission. He also said he'd had a request from another resident seeking to place Democrats' signs on his property, but said no.
Sheldon was upset enough about the incident that he contacted the Supervisor of Elections Office, but operations manager Elizabeth Townsend said issues related to campaign signs are handled by law enforcement.
Then Sheldon spoke with a Sheriff's Office representative, but without proof of theft or vandalism, he said, he didn't expect officers could do much.
Still, he said his first political campaign has been an eye-opener.
"I'm new to this thing, but I thought that adults play somewhat nice,'' he said. "I know I taught my children to not take other people's things.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.