Following an informal discussion at Town Hall last month, three Franklin Town Council candidates displayed election signs the day before it was permitted by a town bylaw, raising concern among some of their opponents that favoritism may have played a role in the lack of enforcement of the regulation.
"If there was going to be a change in the bylaw, I just wish everyone could be on the same playing field," said Councilor Michael LeBlanc, running for reelection in Tuesday's vote.
The bylaw states that candidates cannot put up campaign signs for a municipal office until two weeks before the election. For this week's ballot, that meant signs could first go up on Oct. 23.
But two incumbent councilors, Joseph McGann and Judith Pond Pfeffer, and challenger and former councilor Robert Vallee put up some signs the day before.
"I happened to talk to Councilor McGann on Monday, and he told me he had been at Town Hall and the town attorney told him the bylaw was unconstitutional and that we could put up our signs at any time," Pfeffer said.
But Mark Cerel, the town attorney, said he hadn't talked with McGann that day.
Rather, Cerel said he and Building Commissioner David Roche had casually discussed the sign bylaw, including the timeline it imposed, some weeks, or possibly months, earlier, and that Roche had mentioned the conversation to McGann on Oct. 22.
Neither Roche nor McGann could be reached for comment.
Vallee called the topic a nonissue and said the reaction was overblown.
"Three signs up at 7 o'clock on the night before - historically, we've always done that," he said.
Still, the move drew considerable attention this year, and while critics acknowledged that the extra time the signs were displayed was unlikely to bring a significant boost at the polls, some were upset about the implications of the lax enforcement.
"For me, what it came down to was just a slight advantage" that McGann was perhaps trying to get, said Gene Grella, a council candidate and chairman of the town's Recycling Committee.
"It just didn't make sense to me that he was trying to do that for a day when everyone was trying to stick to the law," Grella said. "We have to be models as far as sticking to the laws."
And he, like LeBlanc, said that any decision regarding the bylaw should have been communicated to all candidates for all town positions.
"It's certainly not right for them to give information to one candidate that the others didn't have," Grella said.
Even Pfeffer, who put up her signs that Monday evening, agreed.
"If they told Councilor McGann, they should have told everyone," she said.
Theresa Shea, a Franklin resident who described herself as an avid observer of town politics, said she was not upset with the council candidates as much as with the full-time town employees, who she says were playing favorites.
"If they thought this law was unconstitutional and provided an unreasonable restriction, why didn't they do anything about it before?" asked Shea.
"There was no question in front of me," Cerel said in response. "I wasn't being asked for a formal decision. We were simply talking about different parts of the bylaw."
Town Administrator Jeffrey Nutting said the bylaw stands as written, but that there was insufficient time to pursue those who had posted signs early.
In response to a question, Nutting said any statements about favoritism were "just wrong."
He also said that he was not concerned about the violations in this case and that Roche and Cerel had only discussed the matter informally, which did not worry him.