A lighted sign on Maine Avenue in Farmingdale, seen March 3, encourages passing motorists to vote for Will Guerrette in the Senate District 14 special election next Tuesday. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA —A Republican state Senate candidate violated the state’s election sign law but will not be assessed a penalty, the Maine Commission on Governmental and Ethics Practices ruled Monday.

The decision, which comes a day before a special election for the Senate District 14 seat, came following a campaign disclosure violation complaint about four electric signs along roadsides in southern Kennebec County.

William Guerrette

On Monday, the ethics commission voted 4-1 at a special meeting that in failing to initially add a disclosure statement to those signs, William Guerrette violated state campaign laws. In a separate action, it voted 4-1 to assess no penalty against Guerrette.

The March 1 complaint that prompted the hearing was brought by Ted and Diane Potter of Gardiner, who said the four electronic signs urging people to vote for Guerrette failed to include a disclaimer explaining who paid for the signs, and who authorized them.

Initially, Guerrette was told the signs were fine, but when his campaign was directed to add disclosure statements, the statements were added.

Guerrette, a Republican, is one of two candidates vying to fill the vacant Senate District 14 seat. He served one term in the state House of Representatives after being elected in 1994. He’s running against Democrat Craig Hickman, who completed his fourth House term at the end of last year.

Incumbent Democrat Shenna Bellows was elected to a third term to represent District 14  in November but declined to be sworn in after she was elected secretary of state by the Maine Legislature.

“Thank you for being fair,” William Guerrette told the commission Monday. “I tried to do nothing wrong, and I tried to fix it the second I heard about it.”

While commission staff routinely handle up to two dozen informal complaints during election season, this complaint was a formal complaint, prompting the board’s special meeting a day before the election.

With informal complaints, Jonathan Wayne, commission executive director said, staff members advise candidates to add a label or a sticker to the sign including the missing information so that members of the public can see it.

“That’s our normal way of remedying the situation,” Wayne said. “We don’t view it as undoing the violation.”

A written complaint normally triggers a hearing within two business days, but not if the commission determines the matter to be a trivial one.

Commission Chairman William Lee III said because the nature of the signs was different from a traditional yard sign, he requested the commission meet Monday, the soonest date possible, to deliberate over something it has not encountered before.

The solar-powered signs, similar to those used by the Department of Transportation at construction projects or to notify drivers of changing conditions, were provided by T Buck Construction in Turner and placed on private property in Senate District 14, which encompasses 11 towns in southern Kennebec County. The signs were not rented; that matters because Guerrette is running under the state’s Clean Elections law, which imposes limits on in-kind contributions among other things.

Joshua Tardy, a former Republican state legislator and attorney speaking for Guerrette, said because the signs weren’t rented there’s no way to assign value for their use, but there should have been a disclaimer. And that’s what Shawn Roderick, a campaign coordinator for the Senate Republicans did by adding the information written out on strips of tape to the signs.

Roderick said he didn’t see these signs as being any different from large hand-painted signs, which under state law don’t require disclosures if they are made from materials not bought for campaign purposes.

Wayne said commission staff generally advises candidate to come up with a nominal fee for in-kind contributions like this.

Roderick said that’s been complicated by the death of the company owner; even so, the campaign has funds to pay for the signs.

Ted Potter, who brought the complaint, said the public wants more transparency.

“In this case, was it difficult to determine were these DOT signs? Were they municipal signs that could mislead voters that officials were supporting Mr. Guerrette?” he said. “I have to agree there needs to be some form of legislation that requires the disclosure statement to be easily readable from a passing vehicle.”

Unlike a lawn sign, which has a disclaimer below the vote for message, Potter said he couldn’t read the scribbled statement taped to the electronic signs. He also said it was taped to the undercarriage of the sign, where most people wouldn’t think to look.

Following the commission’s decision, the parties released statements.

Julia Brown, executive director of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, said Maine voters deserve to know who is paying to influence their vote.

“Will Guerrette is a seasoned political candidate,” she said. “He opted into Maine’s Clean Election system, funded by taxpayers. He should know full well the rules governing our elections. I thank our Ethics Commission for making sure that campaign laws are followed and enforced.”

Roderick also thanked the commission for its deliberation.

“We’re glad that they declined to assess a penalty. Mr. Guerrette had the chance to use a creative way to get the word out about his campaign and doesn’t deserve to be penalized for doing so,” he said. “It was disappointing that Democrats tried to turn this into a political smear, especially since we promptly added disclaimers to the signs once the issue was brought to our attention and we had a discussion with Ethics staff about how to handle it.”

The Maine Ethics Commission is a five-member commission, with two Democratic members, two Republican members and an independent member, that administers Maine’s campaign finance laws.

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