Prince George's County pundits have predicted virtual hand-to-hand combat in a new kind of turf war marking races for the first County Council that is to be made up of members elected by districts. By all the campaign signs -- at least, those signs that are still standing -- the 2nd District in Hyattsville is living up to expectations.
State officials say signs promoting the campaign of Democratic council candidate Anthony Cicoria, a state delegate, have been posted illegally more often than those of any other candidate. State highway officials said that by the end of last week they had removed more than 30 illegally posted signs promoting Cicoria's candidacy.
Hyattsville Mayor Thomas L. Bass and his supporters complain that most of their 2-by-8-foot campaign placards were destroyed or defaced within days of their appearance recently. Cicoria, in turn, charges that the State Highway Administration is in league with the erstwhile Prince George's Democratic political "machine" to play "dirty tricks" on his campaign to help its favorite son Bass.
The Sign Wars began last May, when Cicoria began to blanket the newly created council district, centered in the area of Hyattsville, Takoma Park and Five Towns, with the stenciled 3-by-4 foot posterboard displays, despite state laws prohibiting such signs before Aug. 1, state officials said. They said that many of Cicoria's signs, which he said were valued at $50 each, were erected within the right-of-way of state-maintained roads, another violation of the law.
Although other illegally posted signs have been removed, violations by Cicoria are the only ones turned over to state lawyers for legal action this year, said Norman Polski, an attorney for the State Highway Administration. He said the legal move was prompted by a lack of response from Cicoria.
Henry Leonnig, the highway administration's local attorney, said he was prepared to seek a court injunction to stop the illegal posting of Cicoria's signs. Although Leonnig and Morris Stein, who is in charge of outdoor advertising for the highway administration, said they had talked with Cicoria campaign officials several times, the signs continued to appear in the wrong places.
Last week, "We made arrangements to yank Cicoria in here and say, 'Look, we're not going to take this any more,' " said Leonnig. However, Leonnig said, as of last Friday, Cicoria finally was in compliance with the state law, which carries a maximum $500 fine for each offending sign.
Cicoria contends that he is the victim of a conspiracy on the sign issue, though other candidates say the highway administration is even-handed in its removal of illegal signs.
"What he says is ridiculous. We've put them up in some places and find them gone the next day," said Brian Clarke, press aide to Parris Glendening, who is running for county executive. Clarke said it is his campaign's normal procedure simply to call the highway administration whenever a sign is missing, noting that signs often are posted inadvertently in illegal places.
Yet Cicoria, who owns a trophy store, insists, "I think you can see it. I'm the only one they've done it to. They must really fear me."
Meanwhile, in the Bass campaign, 18 plywood campaign signs went up on Aug. 1 and Bass' campaign chairman, lawyer Lance Billingsley, said that half were down by Aug. 3. "Someone went around with red spray paint and eliminated the B in Bass," Billingsley complained.
Within a week, the $38 signs had been replaced or repaired, Billinsgley said, "and they stole 10 more." Billinsgley made a formal complaint to the Hyattsville police force two weeks ago and said that only three signs have been defaced since.
Bass, a telephone equipment installer who works nights, blamed his opponent for removal of a sign that had disappeared from his own yard by the time he came home from work the next morning.
"Who else would go to the trouble of taking a 2-by-8 sign with 6-foot 2-by-3s attached to them? Nobody needs that many souvenirs," said Bass.
Cicoria denied responsibility for the vandalism and said that 60 of his signs also were missing. He acknowledged that some may have been taken by the state. Four years ago Cicoria had similar difficulties with state authorities over signs reputedly posted in state right-of-ways.
This time Cicoria fired off a letter to the Department of Transportation, accusing Stein of being "a tool for petty harrassment."
Stein, whose office has removed some of Cicoria's signs, said he is hurt by the charge, but plans to stick to his guns.