Things Get Sticky for Election Sign Thieves

Things Get Sticky for Election Sign Thieves

(Crystal A. Proxmire, 11/4/2011)

After their “Dan Martin for City Council” sign was stolen for the fifth time from their front lawn, a Ferndale couple decided to catch the thieves in the act and teach them a lesson.

Beth O’Connor and Jim O’Donnell each played a role in the stakeout.  After a suggestion from a friend on Facebook, O’Connor painted a layer of corn syrup on the edges of the sign.  Corn syrup is clear, and extremely sticky.

Then O’Donnell, who was working at home on Wednesday, had the camera ready.  Neighbors on his street, which is within a few blocks of Ferndale High School, suspected that it was students making mischief on their lunch breaks.  Dozens of signs in the neighborhood have been stolen or picked up and moved to other people’s yards or public green areas, and it seemed to be happening in the middle of the day.

“I checked the high school bell schedule and narrowed it down to a 15 minute time window when the students would be walking by. I had the camera pointed out the front door, and sure enough high school boys came up on the lawn and one of them grabbed the sign.”

The picture O’Donnell snapped was the moment when the thief held out his sticky hand to see what he’d gotten all over it.  The corn syrup worked.

Then O’Donnell gave them their second surprise.  He walked out as they stood looking around bewildered.  “Hey boys, what’cha doing?” he asked as one of them still held the sign.  According to O’Donnell  he got a typical teenage reaction of “I don’t know.”

“The one sheepishly put the sign back in the ground and they walked back towards the school,” O’Donnell said.  He then got in his car and drove to the school so he could make it there first.  He and members of school staff were able to identify the students involved.

O’Donnell said that while theft is a crime, he felt confident that the school administration would address the issue of discipline.  “Getting caught in the act is enough to make them realize they were in the wrong,” he said.  “They probably think of what they are doing as mischief, and I don’t think there is any malicious or political intent behind it. …I’m going to follow up with the school and see what has been done.  I might suggest that as retribution they volunteer to help collect signs on the day after the election for the candidates.”  School officials did not return our request for comment.

Stealing signs may seem like a harmless prank, but it causes all sorts of problems in the political process.  “Elections here aren’t usually too contentious, but when signs come up missing candidates might start to wonder if other candidates are sneaking out at night to take them.  It can cause hurt feelings or suspicion when really there was nothing political behind it,” O’Donnell said.

Another consequence of sign theft is that in some communities, like Ferndale, candidates are legally responsible for the placement of signs. Signs cannot be in public right of way, or on the strip of grass between the street and sidewalk.  Nor can they be on vacant properties or tossed about like litter.  Yet when mischievous people move signs, it’s the candidates that get the code enforcement calls. This year there have been three complaints about improperly placed election signs, according to Ferndale City Clerk Cherrilyn Tallman.

“Plus they’re expensive.  It costs about $10 per sign and when you get into big national campaigns sometimes the homeowner has to pay for their sign.  That’s not fair,” O’Donnell said, adding, “Signs are an important part of the political process.  When I put a sign out it is how I exercise my voice.  When you steal campaign signs you’re taking away a person’s political expression.”

O’Donnell is no stranger to political campaign sign thefts.  He grew up in a political family, with former Councilperson Helen Weber and former School Board member Frank O’Donnell as his aunt and uncle.  O’Donnell is also currently running for a seat on the Library Board, but because he is unopposed, he did not invest in lawn signs.  He said that in addition to going through several “Martin” signs, he had two endorsing Mayor Dave Coulter taken before he ran out of replacement signs.

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