An issue over campaign signs is again drawing attention in Hamilton County after a candidate’s wife was caught on camera removing his opponent’s signs.
The Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office on Monday night announced it had launched an investigation into missing campaign signs from the northwest corner of 211th Street and Oakbay Drive, a Noblesville address near Morse Reservoir.
County Councilman Steve Schwartz, who is in a heated Republican primary race against Noblesville resident Mark Hall to keep his District 3 seat, reported to the sheriff’s department that his campaign signs were being taken. He turned over nighttime photographs of his opponent’s wife, Lisa Hall, removing the signs.
Schwartz told IBJ that his father, who lives near the intersection, set up a trail camera at the site after Schwartz’s signs turned up missing five times. When he once again noticed signs were missing again Sunday morning, he and his father checked the camera and called police. Altogether, he said about 45 signs—which cost anywhere from $2.50 to $4—were taken.
The farmer who leases the farmland at the intersection gave Schwartz permission to put signs up, he said.
Mark Hall, however, told IBJ he has full written permission from the property owner (who leases the land to the farmer) to place signs there and remove them. He said his wife took down Schwartz's signs Saturday night because Schwartz doesn't have permission from the property owner to advertise there. She also removed a sign advertising a painting business, he said.
"As agreed with the property owner, our campaign removed two signs this past weekend with permission in writing from the property owner," Hall said in written comments. "We seriously question our opponent's repeated trespass violations, but in an effort to take the high road, we chose to not make a big deal of it at the time."
Since removing Schwartz's signs, Lisa Hall has cooperated with the sheriff’s department while investigators determine whether a crime was committed, a media release from the department says.
"While it is still early in the investigation, there are several issues for detectives to consider before determining what, if any, criminal or civil charges might be presented to the Prosecutor’s Office," the sheriff’s department said. "Among these are a determination of whether signs were on public right-of-way or private property and, if on private property, who granted permission to place signs in the leased farm field."
Hall said the issue is “real straightforward.” He has permission from the property owner and Schwartz doesn’t.
“It’s irrefutable,” he said. “We didn’t do anything wrong.”
Schwartz told IBJ that Hall should have called or emailed him about the issue rather than having members of his campaign remove the signs at night.
“It shouldn’t be a big battle. This is small town. Pick up the phone, call me, or email me,” he said. “They made no attempt to contact me.”
Hall said he did try to tell Schwartz that he didn't have permission to put signs on the property on April 14 at the property location.
"We offered to show [Schwartz] written permission," Hall said in a written statement. "He approached our vehicle aggressively yelling obscenities. As he neared my wife’s open window yelling and aggressive, we pulled away to avoid a physical confrontation. Driving to the west, my opponent’s son then gave me the finger and yelled as we drove off."
Schwartz denied that incident ever happened.
Hall said he's having his own problems with stolen signs. More than 100 have been stolen or destroyed, he said. He said a witness reported seeing several of his signs being removed from the State Road 32/38 intersection and replaced with opponent signs.
Political signs have stirred up controversy in Hamilton County several times in recent election campaigns.
Last month, a judge struck down a sign ordinance passed by the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners. The ordinance banned signs from being placed in unincorporated areas the commissioners control, including the right-of-way along roads.
County council candidate Rick Sharp filed a lawsuit in February, saying the ordinance violated political free speech.
And two years ago, a county council candidate was charged with criminal mischief after stealing his opponents’ political signs during a heated primary race.
During the 2016 primary elections, then Fall Creek Township Trustee Jeff Hern, who was running for an at-large Hamilton County Council seat, was accused of stealing opponent Rick McKinney’s campaign signs. Both men went on to win four-year terms in at-large seats in the election and now serve together on the council.
Last May, Hern pleaded guilty to criminal mischief charges he faced for taking the signs and agreed to pay McKinney $891 to cover the cost of the signs.