It happens every election season, in the dark of night, when no one is supposed to be looking. Campaign signs mysteriously disappear.

But this year, it seems, someone was looking. Former Annapolis mayor Richard Hillman, a member of the Anne Arundel County Ethics Commission, said he was walking his dog Saturday night when he saw someone remove a Gilbert Renaut campaign sign from the Crown gas station at West Street and Monticello Avenue. Renaut is an independent candidate for mayor.

Hillman, a Democrat, said he recognized the thief, recorded his license plate number and later confirmed that he was a campaign worker for Mayor Ellen O. Moyer (D), who is running for re-election.

Hillman, who supported Moyer in 2001 but isn't taking sides this year because of his involvement with the ethics commission, said he first reported the matter to Moyer's campaign manager, Kathleen M. Nieberding, hoping the parties could resolve the matter amicably. But after Nieberding denied the allegation, Hillman reported it to the election board and, on the board's advice, to the police: Campaign sign theft is a misdemeanor.

Nieberding and the suspect, who is not being named because he has not been charged, did not immediately return phone calls Tuesday. But campaign volunteer Jan Hardesty said the suspect "categorically denies it, and this is not something we tolerate." Hardesty said the suspect insists he was home sick that evening.

"We've had the same problem," Hardesty said about sign theft.

Alderman George O. Kelley Sr. (R-Ward 4), the GOP mayoral candidate, said he accepts sign thefts as typical election shenanigans. "I've had to [replace] signs on a nightly basis," he said, "but I never bother to report it. That's just the election process. I take it as a positive sign that my opponents take my campaign seriously."

Renaut, who e-mailed various news outlets Tuesday alerting them to the alleged theft, said he, too, accepts sign pilfering as part of normal election business and wouldn't have reported it this time -- until, that is, the Moyer campaign denied the allegation. "The implication of the denial is that Dick Hillman is making it up," he said. "I mean, he's not even a supporter of mine; he supported Moyer." Renaut said he has not decided whether he will press charges.

For his part, Hillman, who was mayor from 1981 to 1985, said he hopes people won't make too much of the incident.

"I hope they stay interested on the substantive issues and not on some campaign worker stealing signs, because that happens all the time," he said.

Unions Back Moyer

Stung by upscale grocer Dean & DeLuca's exit from a deal to lease the city-owned Market House, Moyer's re-election campaign received a boost last week when the city's police, fire and labor unions endorsed her for a second term.

The police union bypassed Republican mayoral challenger Kelley, a former Annapolis police officer and one-time union member.

"We chose to go with Mrs. Moyer because she delivered on everything she has promised, and she has credibility with us and the trust of the officers," said Cpl. John Miller, chief steward for the local union.

Kelley took the rejection in stride. "What I'm looking for is the endorsement of the people," he said. "And that will be decided Nov. 8."

Record-Setting Schooner

The schooner Imagine . . . ! set a course record last week as it won the 2005 Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race from Annapolis to Portsmouth, Va., completing the course in just under 13 hours.

The Annapolis-based charter boat was among 34 entrants in the 16th annual race, said to be the largest gathering of schooners on the East Coast. The race promotes the Chesapeake Bay's heritage. Proceeds are donated to charities working to preserve the bay.

This is the second victory for Imagine . . . ! in seven races. The 76-foot ship and its 11-person crew arrived in Portsmouth at 2:37 a.m. Friday.