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“Interference In the County’s Elections”? Not So Fast: How 2 Illegal Political Signs Seeded a Phony Controversy

| October 26, 2018

The political signs were planted on land leased to Publix and SunTrust Bank in the Hammock. (c FlaglerLive)

The political signs were planted on land leased to Publix and SunTrust Bank in the Hammock. (c FlaglerLive)

A pair of political campaign signs planted and then unearthed from in front of a Publix and a SunTrust bank branch in the Hammock kicked off two police investigations–one by the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, and another–once the sheriff concluded that the agency may have a conflict of interest–by the State Attorney’s Office.

But based on interviews with all involved, on the sheriff’s investigation report and on county emails tracing official involvement in the matter, there is a lot less there than meets the prosecutorial eye. Rather, misunderstandings, misuse of private property and personal animus rather than anything approaching illegal or inappropriate behavior driving an election-season attempt at manufacturing a controversy, though such controversies are not unusual in distempered weeks near the end of campaign season.

The person driving the issue hints at the arguable credibility of the issue’s seriousness: Dennis McDonald, the candidate for Flagler County Commission who barely six weeks ago filed another police complaint charging that Commissioner Dave Sullivan had threatened his life in a statement to FlaglerLive (Sullivan had not), who had at the time been at the center of another manufactured controversy over inaccurate claims, and who has made a habit of suing local governments or filing formal complaints against them. He has long been critical of County Administrator Craig Coffey and County Attorney Al Hadeed. It is Hadeed’s involvement in the political sign issue in the Hammock that once again mobilized McDonald’s animus toward him.

During the primary season, McDonald and his friend John Ruffalo planted two four-by-four political signs on the property at 5399 North Ocean Shore Boulevard, or State Road A1A. The signs, one pointing at A1A’s northbound traffic, the other pointing at southbound traffic, was in support of Janet McDonald’s re-election campaign for the school board. The McDonalds are married.

The property is owned by Rosemary Myers of Flagler Beach, but Myers leases it to SunTrust Bank and to Publix.

“Rosemary called me and told me I was free to put up signs on any of her properties on A1A,” McDonald said. “She gave me permission to put signs on all of her properties.”

Myers did not call McDonald, and she did not give him permission to “put signs on all her properties,” she said.

Myers since spring has been among a group of people leading efforts to save Cooper, a dangerous dog, from being executed.The group has led a campaign of its own on behalf of the dog. Myers in spring spread the word that she would allow political candidates who support her cause to place political signs on vacant properties she owns. She spread the word through a third party.

“I put the word out through this person that if anybody on the campaign trail wants to participate in the cause I’m involved in, they can put their campaign signs on my property in the Hammock,” Myers said, “and I said not on the Publix-Suntrust side because I don’t have authority there, but across the street, where it’s vacant land.”

“I did not speak to Dennis directly,” she said–at least not then. She did so this week.

McDonald did not speak with either SunTrust or Publix officials to get their permission for the signs. They would have denied it: neither company allows political signage. Nor do local governments–in this case, county government–allow signage on public right-of-ways. The signs stayed on the property for weeks because SunTrust thought they were on the right-of-way.

So did Scenic A1A Board Chairman Dennis Clark. Scenic A1A is a volunteer organization that secured the designation of A1A as a federal scenic byway and that advocates for the preservation of its rusticity. The organization has won awards in part for its work controlling the proliferation of signs along A1A. Clark this election season has been emailing Scott Simon, the county’s code enforcement officer, and copying Hadeed, to alert them to various illegally planted signs along A1A. Clark documents his sightings with pictures and even, in some cases, aerial-photography measurements. Hadeed has occasionally sent his own alerts to Simon about signs in the right of way or on government properties.

On Oct. 12, McDonald noticed that the Janet McDonald signs were missing from in front of SunTrust-Publix. He went into the bank and learned that a teller had spoken to Hadeed about the signs. Hadeed, the teller reported, had asked whether the bank had given permission for the signs to be placed there. She didn’t know, but said Hadeed let her know the county could not pick them up because they’re not on public property, though it could pick them up if the signs were uprooted and placed in the right-of-way for pick-up. SunTrust, according to the sheriff’s report, hired a third party and had the signs removed, but it’s not clear if the signs were placed in the right of way.

For signs placed on private property without permission, it isn’t illegal for the lease-holder or the property owner to remove and discard the signs. In this case, the two signs were illegally planted. They were not illegally removed.

McDonald was incensed that Hadeed was getting involved in the matter. “Hadeed went to the county and the county told him they knew where the signs were and that they were legal. That’s what’s bizarre,” McDonald said. “This is obstruction.” He added: “How could a $210,000 employee get involved in something like this?”

In fact, it was Clark who had asked code enforcement to remove the signs almost two weeks earlier, though Hadeed had noticed the signs first. “Al Hadeed reminded me that there are several large political signs next to Publix on A1A,” Clark wrote Simon on Oct. 1, copying Hadeed. “We now know that Publix does not allow political signs on their property, and signs are not allowed in the right-of-way. Therefore all of those signs should be removed.”

The next day, Hadeed emailed Clark: “Publix and Suntrust control the property use.  Ms. Meyer [sic.]  who lives in Flagler Beach would have no role in allowing or prohibiting signage under her lease provided they comply with state and local law.” Simon then wrote to Clark to explain that the county had no authority to remove the signs. Clark didn’t give up: “The manager at Publix has stated that they do not allow political signs on their property, and they would move them into the right-of-way if they were on their property,” he wrote Simon the next day. “I will try to get their contact information so we can confirm for you.” Two days later, Clark added other signs–non-political, in those cases–he wanted Simon to address. That day, Hadeed wrote him: “I am handling the Publix and Suntrust signs.”

So Hadeed unquestionably got involved, but at Clark’s urging, and on a property he has plenty of history with: “Recall that I handled the land use issues on this exemplary property in terms of tree preservation, architecture, stormwater management, and parking lot layout,” he said in an email to FlaglerLive. “This was the model commercial design for the National Scenic Byway.  Thus, I was familiar with the ownership structure and the two companies in terms of their land use approvals, and knew that Ms. Myers was the underlying owner and that she had leased it to them (although candidly at the time I had to call her I did not know absolutely whether the companies had purchased the fee simple to close out the leases.  But she told me the leases continued.  The Property Appraiser site showed her as the owner and Scott Simon so informed me before I lent my efforts to the situation.”

Hadeed continued: “The purpose of speaking with them was to advise them about the complaints filed with the Code office and Scenic A1A and that Code found the signs on their lands.  I believe there were six signs at the time.  Two Dennis McDonald, two Janet McDonald, one Joe Mullins and I cannot recall the last one.”

At first the county thought that if the signs were placed on the right of way, code enforcement could then pick them up. “Ed and I spoke and determined that this was not a good idea to pick up the sign material if they decided to call us for that assistance,” Hadeed said. “We discussed the potential liability of someone being injured with the signs down on the ground near the bike path and also it was not appropriate in any event to assist a private owner remove and dispose of material placed on their lands.  I worked into the evening that night and on my way home I stopped at Publix and spoke to the same person as the day before to tell them of that change.  She informed me that they had their own grounds maintenance crew (an outside vendor I assumed) and they would likely be tasked with that removal.  She did advise me that the signs on their property were not with their permission.”

Hadeed said he “did not advise at any time that they should take down the signs.  Only that they could dispose of them if not with their permission.  I also mentioned that they could contact the candidates if they lacked permission and the candidates might then pull them out.”

The bottom line: the signs disappeared after the bank had them pulled out. Apparently no one called McDonald.

“I don’t ever want to cause any problem for anybody and if there’s a sign that got put up on land that is causing problems, I don’t have a problem taking it down,” McDonald said. “Why didn’t somebody call me, or call Janet? We’re easy to find.” Nevertheless, McDonald pressed the case, filing a complaint with the sheriff’s office and claiming that Hadeed was “interceding with the elections process,” even though the only persons to have violated any rights at all in this case–property rights–were McDonald and Ruffalo when they originally planted the signs on private property, without permission.

Myers isn’t blaming them, seeing the matter more as a misunderstanding. “It was a mistake, a through-the-grapevine sort of mistake,” she said, with her directive misinterpreted. But by having a sheriff’s report on the incident in hand, McDonald is now claiming that he was wronged.

The sheriff’s investigator never spoke with Myers, Hadeed or Clark–all individuals who would have quickly clarified the matter, though he spoke with Simon. “The investigation is suspended pending contact with potential witnesses/suspects,” the Oct. 12 report ends.

McDonald sent an unredacted copy of the report to FlaglerLive on Oct. 22, the same day he wrote four of the five county commissioners (he excluded Greg Hansen, his opponent) to accuse Hadeed of having “direct interference in the 2018 county elections.” He apparently disseminated the report more broadly, as the sheriff’s office became aware.

FlaglerLive requested a copy and received a redacted one (Hadeed’s name was blacked out). “The victim of a crime almost always gets an unredacted copy of the report,” the sheriff’s Chief Mark Strobridge said today. “What he does with it, we cannot control.” But Strobridge stressed that the investigation was no longer in the sheriff’s hands, and that the State Attorney’s Office would be investigating–if it in fact investigates: the office does not generally confirm or deny the existence of an investigation. It’s not clear what would be investigated in this case.


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15 Responses for ““Interference In the County’s Elections”? Not So Fast: How 2 Illegal Political Signs Seeded a Phony Controversy”

  1. gmath55 says:

    All this over signs? LOL. How about no signs anywhere! We the people don’t like seeing them. How about stop sending stupid flyers in the mail, they are taking up space in my garbage can. How about stop the mud slinging ads on TV, they are boring and not truthful.

  2. Concerned Citizen says:

    I’m with gmath55 on this one.

    Your political signs clutter up the side of our roadway and are obnoxious. Several of your signs have ended up on private property and will continued to be removed. Including Dennis McDonald’s. I surely hope someone makes a threat or calls the police over an illegally posted sign. I will fight it!!

    I don’t care who you are or what your running for. You have to follow the rules like everyone else. We have to jump thru hoops to get a garage sale sign. Why should we have to look at yours all over the city?

    And please stop blowing up our phones !!

  3. snapperhead says:

    Mr. Lawsuit shines again. A good steward of tax payer dollars? LOL. Sun Trust and Publix should sue him for damages and illegal use of their property.

  4. mark101 says:

    whomever votes for Dennis McDonald, gets what they deserve .

  5. Beachbum says:

    And it begins. McDonald gets into office and the lawsuits begin. God help us.

  6. Willy Boy says:

    Beyond absurd. Our taxes pay for all this squabbling.

  7. Bill says:

    I would really like to see the incumbent Hansen go BUT i dont think this I want to vote FOR McDonald.

  8. The Truth says:

    Why, do politicians have to lie to win, why do they have to attack their opponent? Why can’t they just say what they believe in and want to do to improve our lives? Why does the President go to so many rallies when he should be in his office improving our country, not dividing it. What has this world come to?

  9. gmath55 says:

    Nothing wrong with lawsuits. It’s the American way. There have been far less or trivial lawsuits in the world then Mr. McDonaild’s lawsuits..

  10. palmcoaster says:

    @The Truth you are right…This POTUS is campaigning and promoting hate and then his extreme fans act on it with tragedies like just happened this am in PA, a racist killing eight or ten of our good Americans attending service at their temple.

  11. Beachbum says:

    Gmath55, the problem with McDonald’s lawsuits is that the taxpayers of Flagler County end up paying the court costs for all his nonsense. If elected, will his first year’s salary go to pay the almost 60K he and his wife still owe in fines?

  12. jake says:

    @ the truth, Obama spent eight years campaigning, it’s the new norm.

  13. gmath55 says:

    @ palmcoaster – Mmmmmmm? He didn’t even like Trump.
    Robert Bowers Politics: He Wrote He Didn’t Vote For Trump

    In the case of Robert Bowers (suspect synagogue shooter), though, his writings on social media indicate he wrote that he did not vote for Trump and held some animosity toward the president because he saw him as a “globalist” who was not doing enough against Jewish people.

    Mr. Bowers also extended his anger to the president, whom he accused of not going far enough to achieve the political goals Mr. Bowers wanted.

  14. capt says:

    Dennis McDonald’is NOT worthy to represent Flagler County in any capacity.

  15. Jan Reeger says:

    As a Realtor who knows who owns many properties, I can tell you there are numerous campaign signs placed on private property without permission by the persons in this article and a number of others. Maybe we need campaign signs policed.

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