Is the Republicans' billboard deal an under-the-table bargain influencing candidates at the expense of Salt Lake County residents, or a simple business transaction?

The Democratic candidates for Salt Lake County Commission, Karen Crompton and Mike Reberg, say the former - that a $50,000 agreement between Reagan Outdoor Advertising and the Utah Republican Party to provide 86 billboards advertising Republican candidates is simply a way for company president Bill Reagan to circumvent campaign finance disclosure laws and give candidates he favors a sweet deal.They also say Reagan is thereby buying off the primary candidates benefiting from the deal, incumbent County Commissioner Mary Callaghan, running against Crompton, and Mark Shurtleff, running against Reberg, to keep the county's billboard placement ordinance as relaxed as possible.

About 50 of the 86 billboards will be devoted to Callaghan and Shurtleff. State Republican Party Director Spencer Stokes said that was because they were two of the most visible candidates this year.

The Republicans paid no money up front, and received a discount on the billboards because they bought so many at once. Stokes said it was a standard business transaction.

"There's no hidden agenda," he said. "Obviously when you buy in bulk you're going to save. We have a business relationship with many vendors in the state that we do on credit - I'm a little stumped that there is so much fuss over this."

Crompton begs to differ.

"Every newspaper, TV and radio outlet, as well as all experienced brochure and lawn sign printers, demand 100 percent payment up front from every candidate," she said.

Bill Reagan has said that billing customers only after the billboards are put up is standard practice for him.

Callaghan called the whole issue an example of making something out of nothing. "You can insinuate anything you want without substantiation, (but) that's hypocritical and reckless," she said.

Even if there isn't anything insidious lurking in the agreement itself, Crompton and Reberg say it makes Callaghan and Shurtleff beholden to Reagan. Last year the County Commission, at the urging of Reagan, relaxed its billboard ordinance to allow more sites and larger billboards in the face of the urging of various residents and the recommendation of the County Planning Commission to hold the line.

Callaghan voted against the change, but Crompton says the incumbent doesn't have the political courage to initiate a repeal.

"This is just one more example of her unwillingness to take a stand on issues and her unwillingness to take a leadership role," Crompton said.

Callaghan said she has done nothing further on the issue because she hasn't heard from citizens.

"I voted based on testimony in the hearing, but since that vote I, and I believe most of the commissioners, have not heard a request or a proposal regarding any part of that ordinance."

Crompton is using no billboards in her campaign. "I felt if I was going to take a strong stand against billboards in this campaign it would be awkward if I used them." Reberg is using one.