Candidates quarrel about campaign signs during nearly every local election. They allege the other camp is removing signs and banners, and usually, that's the end of it.

But like many other political issues in Costa Mesa, this year's allegations have risen to a new level.

"The sign stealing is perennial, and the accusations are perennial," said Robin Leffler, president of the council opposition group Costa Mesans for Responsible Government. "The difference is the level of control."


FOR THE RECORD:
The subheadline on an earlier version of this story said both political parties claim their signs and banners are being stolen. In fact, the City Council race is nonpartisan.

With a debate raging about the future of city government, both sides claim there are more thefts than years past.

Councilman Gary Monahan, who is up for reelection, is offering a $1,100 reward for information leading to an arrest. And the Police Department has taken the unprecedented step of sending officers in-person to investigate alleged thefts.

In the past, the police would take a report over the phone or online, but would not send an officer to the home or business where the theft allegedly happened.

"Nobody has ever done that before," Leffler said "We just sort of rolled with it."

But Monahan and Councilman Steve Mensinger, who is also up for election, say this year's thefts are worse than usual. They claim thousands of dollars in losses from large banners and the smaller lawn signs.

"Emotions are up, but this is just wrong," said Monahan, who was more upset about the banners than the smaller signs. "I've just never seen it this bad."

Mensinger complained to Police Chief Tom Gazsi and city CEO Tom Hatch after a recent spat of alleged thefts. At least 15 banners with the "3Ms" candidates — Mensinger, McCarthy and Monahan — have been stolen, Monahan said, in addition to lawn signs.

On the other side, Costa Mesans for Responsible Government filed a police report with 24 alleged sign thefts from private property, ground campaign coordinator Mike Harmanos said.

"People on either side who are stealing campaign signs are suppressing democracy," Leffler said.

Both Mensinger and Monahan contributed $500 for a reward and an anonymous donor gave $100.

Gazsi said he did not know if there were more reports of theft than usual, but was nonetheless sending officers out to collect information. He emphasized that the department was treating all sides equally.

"It's an aggravation to those who support the variety of candidates," Gazsi said.

Both council supporters and opponents have reported thefts from residential lawns and from the sides of commercial buildings and in empty lots, city officials say.

Those are in addition to the usual removals by city contractors, who confiscate materials which violate city code. For instance, signs can only be on public street parkways between 6 a.m. Friday and 6 p.m. Sunday, similar to those for real estate brokers' open houses.

mike.reicher@latimes.com

Twitter: @mreicher