By Erich Wagner (Photo/Jennifer Powell)
In a local election campaign, it is inevitable for candidates to get into the occasional dustup.
This week, city council candidates Townsend “Van” Van Fleet, a Republican, and Independent Phil Cefaratti got into a scrape. But it wasn’t over affordable housing, development, schools or even the city’s debt. It was about campaign signs.
Van Fleet said he and his team had noticed instances where his signs were removed from public areas like roadsides and medians, while Cefaratti’s remained standing. He asked the fellow candidate and Pat Malone, Cefaratti’s campaign manager, if he had been removing the signs at multiple public events, incensing the Independent’s campaign team.
“Three times — at [Mayor Bill] Euille’s [write-in campaign] kickoff, at the Departmental Progressive Club forum and then at a picnic on the West End — he accused us,” Cefaratti said, denying the allegation. “You can’t stand by and say, even jokingly, ‘You’re stealing my signs, stop stealing my signs.’ He asked if maybe some kids volunteering could have done it, but he knows our campaign is just three people.
“And my wife is the one who does all the signs, so basically, he’s accusing my wife of stealing signs, and I can’t have that out there.”
Jim Lake, a Van Fleet campaign volunteer who handles campaign signs, said he came to the conclusion that Cefaratti’s campaign was removing their signs after noticing a bizarre phenomenon along Commonwealth Avenue one day.
“It’s circumstantial, and we’ve never seen anybody do it,” he said. “But we saw blocks on Commonwealth where [Cefaratti’s] signs were the only ones up and everyone else’s were down.”
But Cefaratti and Malone said there’s a simple explanation for that: the city’s mowing schedule.
“During election season, when they mow the grass in the city [on public rights of way], rather than trashing campaign signs, they stack them some place, but they never put the signs back up,” Malone said. “They just pile them up.”
“I can give a specific instance where that happened: the Friday before last,” said Cefaratti. “We were here around 4:30 p.m., my wife and I, and I got an email from a friend and real estate client, saying, ‘I wanted to let you know that they just pulled up all the signs along Commonwealth Avenue.’
“So we spent the next two hours going the entire length of the road, putting signs back in, and as night fell, we saw [Democratic candidate] Willie Bailey putting his own back up. It’s just being diligent and as soon as signs go down, getting out there and putting them back up.”
City spokesman Craig Fifer confirmed that the city’s mowing schedule does not “take a break” for election season, and that mowers stack signs up so that campaigns can easily replant them.
“When it is practical, the signs are removed and stacked against a tree or on the ground so the candidates can put them back up again,” Fifer said. “This has happened several times already this year, where along an entire street, hundreds of signs have been taken down for mowing. Usually campaigns are right back out there within a day or two to put them back up.”
Van Fleet said he tried to be up front with Cefaratti by mentioning it to them when they both were at events together.
“I talked to Pat Malone, his campaign manager, the first time, but that didn’t seem to make it any better,” he said. “So I saw them again [Sunday] and the topic came up, and I said, ‘Hey, your signs are still doing well, but mine are missing in different places, and they went ballistic. … Pat said, ‘I’m retired Air Force, and my word is my bond.’
“So I accepted it and thought that was the end of it.”
But Cefaratti and Malone began to comment publicly on the issue over social media, so Van Fleet said he tried to diffuse the situation early Tuesday morning on Facebook.
“I started getting a whole bunch of stuff on Facebook from them about it, saying I had accused hem libelously and slanderously of stealing signs,” he said. “And it got worse and worse from there. So as that kept going, I wrote him on Facebook to say, ‘Hey, look, time out. We thought basically the signs had been taken down or put on the ground by your people, but if we made the wrong assumption, I’m sorry and I apologize.’
“But since then, they’ve continued to bombard Facebook about this, about how I’m lousy or not trustworthy.”
But Malone said an apology over social media won’t suffice, and he’s considering a defamation lawsuit against Van Fleet.
“The problem is he’s been pontificating publicly, and when you do that, it’s a situation where it’s my reputation and Phil’s reputation that he’s ruining by going out and asserting that we’re stealing his signs,” he said. “We just don’t have time for that. It shouldn’t be an issue, in the scale of things.
“I’m looking at legal action now. That’s where I am, because I’m not going to tolerate it, and nobody should.”