GONZALES — City police officers issued a citation on Tuesday to a city councilman who has clashed with the chief of police for months on allegations Timothy Vessel violated state elections law by pedaling a bicycle with signs against next month’s recall elections too close to election day polling stations.
Vessel, who, with Councilman Gary Lacombe, is on the Dec. 6 ballot to possibly be recalled from office, was seen riding a three-wheeled bicycle about 7:30 a.m. Tuesday near polling stations at East Ascension High School and at City Hall along South Irma Boulevard, police spokeswoman Charlotte Guedry said in a news release Wednesday.
The bike had three signs attached to the back, reading “Gary Lacombe Gonzales City Council Division E,” “Elect Tim Vessel #66 City Councilman at Large” and “Vote Against the Recall,” Guedry said.
Vessel, 48, 333 E. Verna St., Gonzales, was cited Tuesday with one misdemeanor count of violating the state voter code, Police Detective Sgt. Steven Nethken said Wednesday. If convicted, Vessel faces up to a $500 fine, six months in jail or both.
Vessel did not return a message seeking comment left on his cellphone Wednesday.
Vessel, Lacombe and Councilman Terance Irvin are part of a power bloc on the five-member council that has tangled with the police chief and other city leaders over money and zoning regulations. The disputes have drawn increasing attention from Gonzales voters, giving rise to successful petitions to recall Vessel and Lacombe.
Gonzales Police Chief Sherman Jackson, the mayor and two other city councilmen made a public showing of signing recall petitions in early September. During Council meetings, the police chief has clashed with the three councilmen over cuts they want to make to his agency’s budget.
The recall elections against Vessel and Lacombe were not on Tuesday’s ballot, but Nethken said that detectives checked with the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office about whether the prohibition against politicking only applied to measures voters would consider that day.
Nethken said Vessel’s signs promoting the Dec. 6 elections still violate a state law that prohibits political signs within 600 feet of a polling station.
“The statute is pretty clear. It does not have to be on the ballot to be in violation,” Nethken said.
The statute that Vessel was cited under is aimed at stopping electioneering and voter intimidation at the polls. Two provisions refer specifically to political signs, saying that within 600 feet of a polling place it is forbidden to do the following: “To hand out, place or display campaign cards, pictures, or other campaign literature of any kind or description whatsoever” and “To place or display political signs, pictures or other forms of political advertising.”
Meg Casper, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Tom Schedler, said Wednesday that the statute is broadly written and the prohibition on political signs being too close to polling stations does not apply just to what is on the ballot for a given election.
During Vessel’s bicycle ride Tuesday, he parked the bike outside the Ascension Parish Courthouse Annex, which is across South Irma from East Ascension High, and he walked onto the East Ascension campus where the polls were, police spokeswoman Guedry said.
Nethken added none of the complaints officers received alleged Vessel brought fliers or other election materials into the polling place, but Nethken said officers later found election-related fliers in the bicycle.
After stopping at East Ascension High, Vessel then returned to his bicycle and rode north on South Irma to City Hall where polls were also located, Guedry said.
Vessel’s bike ride occurred a few blocks from police headquarters. After receiving numerous complaints, officers were able to watch Vessel ride his bicycle and then measure spots where he had been seen riding and parking the bike, Nethken said. Officers also photographed Vessel.
The officers found Vessel’s bike had been much closer to the polls than 600 feet, Guedry said.
Sgt. Lance Bourgeois and Officer Jimmy Dunaway later that day found Vessel legally handing out fliers to residents on South Ringer Street, Nethken said.
The officers told Vessel that state law prohibited him from having any political signs closer than 600 feet from a polling station, Guedry said.
Vessel disputed he had violated the law, police said, but Bourgeois told him that he had photographic evidence and measurements.
Vessel then asked the officers which polling stations he had been near. When he was told, police said that Vessel replied, “Wait a minute. This ain’t even an election year.”
Dunaway wrote Vessel a misdemeanor summons and the political signs were taken as evidence, Guedry said.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.