As the political season moves into high gear, some truly negative campaigning is taking place. Lawn signs — promoting candidates of both major parties — are disappearing. They are being stolen from private property.

John Kalamarides, chairman of the Wilton Democratic Town Committee, said 15 to 16 signs have been reported missing at this point. They include those promoting Ted Hoffstatter for state representative in the 143rd District, Obama-Biden signs, signs for U.S. Senate candidate Chris Murphy, and for Congressman Jim Himes.

Most of the thefts occurred from Thursday through Sunday of last week, he said, mostly from Westport Road, Ridgefield Road and Belden Hill Road.

Mr. Kalamarides' own property has been hit. A sign endorsing Mr. Hoffstatter sat on his lawn behind a stone wall. "Someone had to go on my property, lift it off and take it away," he said.

"This is stealing people's property and violating their right to free speech," Mr. Kalamarides said.

Wilton police have been notified and told Mr. Kalamarides they will keep an eye out for further thefts.

The signs are expensive, costing about $9 a piece. The money to pay for them comes out of a candidate's campaign funds or the town committee funds.

"If we catch any of these people doing it, we're not going to be easy on them," Mr. Kalamarides said.

Wilton Republican Town Committee Chairman Al Alper is of a similar mind.

"I would encourage members of the public to remember trespassing and theft are both crimes," he said. "We are a town who should respect each other's freedom of speech as well as private property. If they can't do that I hope the police catch them," he said, adding he looks forward to pressing charges.

Mr. Alper said they are "having a tug of war with someone on School Road."

He said there is no particular "pattern or cadence" to a particular candidate. "When they see a grouping of our signs they take them," he said of the thieves. "They are driven by wanting to silence free speech.

"If it's kids who are doing a prank, their parents need to talk to them and remind them everyone has a right to free speech," he continued.

Noting the price of the signs, he added they have to be purchased. "When people steal them, they are stealing from a neighbor, friends they go to school with, parents who might watch them or drive them to a friend's house. They are infringing on people they supposedly care about."

Wilton's town code requires a permit for erection of temporary signs, but according to code enforcement officer Tim Bunting, political signs are exempt under federal free speech laws. They may not be placed on town or state property.

Theft of the signs is considered sixth-degree larceny, according to Capt. John Lynch of the Wilton Police Department. It is a "standard larceny charge such as shoplifting and minor theft." Capt. Lynch could not say what the fine would be since a court appearance is mandated.

If a person defaces a sign, it would be classified as criminal mischief in the third degree, he added, a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and up to $1,000 in fines.

If a person goes on private property without permission, they would face a charge of trespassing.

Anyone wishing to put a Democratic Party sign on their private property may call Mr. Kalamarides at 203-834-0222.

They may also inquire at the Democratic campaign headquarters, which will have its grand opening on Friday, Sept. 27. The office is on Old Ridgefield Road, across from Wilton Library.