Campaign sign controversy fuels high-stakes Manatee County District 6 race

·5 min read

The August primary race between 16-year incumbent Carol Whitmore and political newcomer Jason Bearden has locked the two Republican candidates into battle over campaign signs for the Manatee County Commission's At-Large District 6 seat.

Whitmore removed three of Bearden's campaign signs from display on Saturday, June 11. One sign had been placed on city property and the other two were on private rental properties owned by well-known developer Shawn Kaleta, who did not give Bearden permission to place the signs on his property, according to police records.

On Wednesday, Bearden filed an affidavit with the Holmes Beach Police Department regarding the incident. Whitmore held a press conference just hours after in response to the situation.

Whitmore's taking Bearden's signs is the latest twist in the race for one of the county's two at-large seats already under public scrutiny.

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Only residents registered as Republicans can cast a vote in the high-stakes primary race after two write-in candidates who have campaigned in support of Bearden filed to run against him, closing the primary race to more than half of Manatee County's registered voters.

"They got me. I confess, to the people of Manatee County: I want you to know that I did pick up a few illegally placed yard-signs per Holmes Beach ordinance... and delivered them to the police department," Whitmore said Wednesday afternoon from the footsteps of Holmes Beach City Hall.

Campaign signs removed

Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore addressed the media on Wednesday afternoon about reports that she removed campaign signs that belong to political opponent Jason Bearden from private and public property on Holmes Beach.
Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore addressed the media on Wednesday afternoon about reports that she removed campaign signs that belong to political opponent Jason Bearden from private and public property on Holmes Beach.

Holmes Beach Police Chief William Tokajer said political signs should not be removed by anyone. That can only be done by city police, code enforcement, or the private property owner.

He told the Herald-Tribune that Bearden's signs would likely have been removed by city police if they had properly been reported, because the signs were not in compliance with city ordinances.

Bearden's sworn statement asked for Whitmore to be charged with theft.

"I'm very upset that she had stolen my signs and I would like to press charges against Carol Whitmore for obtaining and stealing my signs immediately," Bearden wrote to the department.

Tokajer said the case will be forwarded to State Attorney Ed Brodsky's office for review on whether to pursue charges.

"Mr. Bearden has filed an affidavit, the affidavit will be forwarded to the State Attorney's office to see if they want to direct file or not," Tokajer said.

When reached for comment, Bearden simply responded with a photo of Whitmore and Brodsky posing for a photo together, stating he should recuse himself.

"This is why the case should be reviewed by another state attorney," Bearden said. "I would hope the state attorney would recuse himself."

A screenshot of a text message from Jason Bearden, who said State Attorney Ed Brodsky should recuse himself from any case related to campaign sign removal by incumbent District 6 Manatee County candidate Carol Whitmore.
A screenshot of a text message from Jason Bearden, who said State Attorney Ed Brodsky should recuse himself from any case related to campaign sign removal by incumbent District 6 Manatee County candidate Carol Whitmore.

During the press conference, Whitmore said she removed the signs because they violated city ordinances that require campaign signs to be displayed no earlier than 45 days prior to the election, and with permission of the private property owner.

However Tokajer said that the city does not plan to enforce the ordinance against Bearden's signs, because in review of the case the city discovered that the ordinance is likely unconstitutional. He added that the city will likely consider an amendment to the ordinance in the near future.

"We found out after the fact that the 45-day requirement that is written in the city code as to when you can put signs up prior to the election has been ruled as non-constitutional because you can no longer regulate the content of a sign," Tokajer said. "We are working on making changes to the ordinance to bring it up to date, that's something that our city attorney is working on."

Whitmore addressed the sign ordinance during her press conference, simply saying that "to this day, right now, it's still in effect." She also noted that other nearby cities also have similar ordinances in place.

"Carol Whitmore didn't do anything wrong, Carol Whitmore did something right and I took them to the police department so they could be returned to the owner, because according to the city ordinances, and every city on this island has an ordinance of when you could put signs up, I turned them in and asked them to return them to the owner. It wasn't time to put them up yet."

District 6 primary race officially closed after qualifying period ends

The period for candidates to qualify for the upcoming elections officially expired last Friday at noon, and the District 6 race was officially closed because of the presence of the two Republican write-in candidates.

This means that neither Democratic nor independent voters can cast ballots in the Republican primary race between Whitmore, Bearden, and Carol Felts — who qualified to run for the seat despite only raising $100 that she loaned herself as of the end of May.

The race would have remained open to all Manatee County voters until two of Bearden's supporters, Antonio Llamas and Robert Lesher, filed to run against him for the seat at his behest.

Although filing to run in a primary election to close a primary race is not illegal, Whitmore reiterated that there are concerns about the ethics of the move and questions whether any state laws were violated in the process.

"There is something not right with him having friends close the primary and contributing to his campaign," Whitmore said Wednesday. "...I've never, ever, heard of a of a candidate openly saying that they asked somebody to close the primary."

"If he wants to go after things like this, he needs to play by the laws and the rules of Manatee County, and obviously he's not," Whitmore said.

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Bearden, Whitmore spar over sign removal in Manatee County District 6 race