When a local NDP campaign had to meet a Calgary animal and bylaw services employee in a Walmart parking lot to make an exchange, it had the whiff of intrigue.
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The meeting was set up by Calgary bylaw services in order to return 28 "Send Harper a Message" signs the city department had removed from public property, though the location was chosen more for the convenience of both parties rather than a shadowy trade.
"We know we had a controversial sign campaign from the beginning, but we also knew that we were compliant," said North Darling, the campaign manager for Matt Masters Burgener in Calgary Heritage. "We checked it out with the federal authorities, and a few days into the sign campaign, we had almost all of our signs disappear over numerous locations in Calgary."
Section 325 of the Canada Elections Act says no one may interfere with the transmission of election advertising, including election signs. There are, however, two exceptions:
- Government agencies may remove signs that do not respect provincial or municipal laws after informing the person who authorized the posting of the sign that they plan to remove it.
- If the sign is a safety hazard, government agencies may remove it without informing the person who authorized the posting of the sign.
"An officer removed some signs over the weekend, some were illegally placed and others were removed under the assumption that they were not campaign signage," said Carissa Vescio, a bylaw spokeswoman and the person who returned the signs. "When we realized they were official Elections Canada signage, we immediately returned the signs to the party."
She said that typically the department would "call the campaign office and ask about the signs before removing them, and we didn't in this case — so we admit that we made a mistake."
Darling said he has never been told the signs were illegally placed.
The campaign knew that bylaw services had taken the signs thanks to a hidden wildlife camera that caught the removal.
According to the NDP campaign, bylaw services initially said it had no information on the signs and wasn't aware of any being confiscated.
After being shown photographs of the signs being removed by a bylaw agent, the department tracked down the signs and arranged to return them.
"It wasn't that they denied it, it was, 'We've got nothing in the system,'" said Darling.
In all, 28 of the 72 missing signs were returned. Of those, 26 were from the area monitored by the camera and two were from another location.
"There was no explanation. At this point, the City of Calgary has told us that it was a mistake and they've apologized for taking our signs. The campaign still has numerous questions. No. 1 — why wasn't internal policy followed? We should have been contacted immediately, we had our official agent designation on every sign, it was very clear it was a Matt Masters campaign."
Darling said he finds the timing of the removal interesting, given that the prime minister was in town when the signs started disappearing.
The campaign has lodged a formal complaint with bylaw services.
An email was sent to Darling on Wednesday afternoon from chief bylaw officer Alvin Murray, who said he's been tasked with conducting an internal investigation into the incident. Murray said photos of the signs have been distributed to officers so there is no further confusion.
Darling said he is happy about the investigation and confident it will be conducted properly, but he's still upset with the damage done.
"They seriously derailed our sign campaign, because for a number of days all of our signs had disappeared and we were really in a position where we weren't sure if we could put any more out."
Also running in the riding are Liberal candidate Brendan Miles and Kelly Christie of the Green Party.
If you're on a mobile device, click here to read the official complaint to bylaw.
Mobile users, follow the live blog here.