The Three Forks Chamber of Commerce voted this week to take down one of its welcome signs because a political candidate has refused to remove his campaign poster from the billboard.
About two months ago, Scott Sales, a former state Republican senator who is running for Montana secretary of state, posted a 4x8-foot campaign sign on the chamber-owned billboard located about five miles north of Interstate 90 on the west side of Highway 287. Sales told the Belgrade News he put up the sign after being granted permission to post it by Dan TeSelle, a personal friend whose family trust owns the farmland on which the billboard sits.
About two weeks ago, Sales said the chamber contacted him asking him to remove the sign.
“I said I had permission from the landowner, and I put them in touch with him,” Sales said. “I expected them to come to some agreement, but apparently they weren’t able to.”
Leandra Hill, executive director of the Three Forks Chamber, said the organization was shaken when it learned about the placement of Sales’ sign in April.
“It’s been really upsetting,” Hill said. “All sides of the political fence are upset, because it appears as if Three Forks is voting for Scott Sales.”
“I was flabbergasted that he even had the audacity to put something on there,” agreed chamber board member Chuck Wambeke, who contacted Sales and asked him to remove his sign. “He was just adamant that he wasn’t going to do that.”
Hill and chamber President Brooke Leugers said their nonprofit is an apolitical organization that isn’t in the business of endorsing candidates. The board is concerned that placement of the sign has left the chamber unwittingly in violation of state administrative rules governing permits for welcome signs.
The chamber erected the billboard in 2011, after being granted permission by the TeSelle family to place it there. Hill said she is trying to locate a copy of the contract between the parties, but it apparently has been misplaced.
Dan TeSelle acknowledges that the chamber had permission to place its billboard on the property. He said he has been under the impression that the agreement was a verbal one because he has never seen a contract, though he said it’s possible that his mother, who is now medically incapacitated, did sign a written agreement with the chamber.
TeSelle said the chamber has never paid rent for the site, and the billboard has faded so badly that he thought it had been abandoned. In fact, he said he has been entertaining an offer from another party to rent the billboard space. When Hill contacted him about Sales’ sign, he offered the chamber the opportunity to put in its own bid to retain rights to the location.
TeSelle said he didn’t hesitate to grant
permission to Sales to post his sign, and he will not ask him to remove it. Campaign signs have been stuck in the ground near the billboard in the past, he added, but this year there is a berm on the side of the highway due to road construction, so the sign needed to be placed higher in order to be visible.
“I think someone who doesn’t like Scott is trying to make political hay,” he said. “This is all blown out of proportion.”
Hill and Wambeke agree the sign has faded, but disagree with Sales and TeSelle that it is unreadable.
“There’s no disputing it’s our sign and it’s still legible,” Wambeke said. “He puts us in violation of the law.”
The chamber planned to replace the faded vinyls on the billboard this year, a project that already stretched the budget, Wambeke said. And the chamber can’t afford $1,000 in rent to keep the billboard in place, so now it is faced with finding a contractor to remove the structure.
Hill said the chamber’s hands are tied when it comes to the issue of the political sign, because members are unwilling to trespass on the TeSelle property or tamper with the private property belonging to Sales, even though Wambeke argues that Sales has committed an equivalent offense.
“Right now, Scott Sales is trespassing,” he said. “His sign is on our sign, and he has does not have permission to put it there.”
Hill said a number of citizens have called the chamber with complaints about the campaign sign. The city of Three Forks has received two complaints, and Leugers said she has received three calls.
“It’s unfortunate that Mr. Sales cost us a sign,” said Leugers, a Republican who says she will not vote for Sales in the June primary because of his “rude and disrespectful” behavior when asked to take down his sign.
But Sales, who concedes that political candidates do their best to get their name out to the public by any means possible, said he “wasn’t trying to ruffle anybody’s feathers” when he placed his sign on the billboard.
“I have tried to the best of my ability to accommodate the chamber and the landowner,” he said. “They have chosen not to work out a deal.”