By Charlotte Smith
The Bladen County Board of Elections held a regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, January 14, 2019 at the local office located at 301 S. Cypress Street in Elizabethtown. The meeting ended with threats of law enforcement being called to the next meeting.
Once the meeting was called to order and Commissioner Arthur Bullock gave the invocation Election Board member Emory White asked for the Pledge of Allegiance to be added to the agenda.
Chairperson Louella P. Thompson, Patsy Sheppard, and Deborah Belle voted against the Pledge of Allegiance being added to the agenda. Board members Michael Aycock and Emory White, both Veterans of the United States military voted for the pledge to be added to the agenda.
When Chairperson Thompson was asked why she would vote against the Pledge of Allegiance by a fellow board member she did not respond. When she was asked the same question again by BladenOnline.com staff she responded by saying, “That’s my right and I exercise it.”
After the approval of the minutes Chairperson Thompson asked for individuals wishing to address the board to speak. After some passionate objections from members in the audience about the board voting against placing the pledge to the flag, Dwight Sheppard, husband of board member Patsy Sheppard rose to his feet and voiced his opinion on why the board should not add the pledge to the agenda.
As Sheppard stood he said, “…That is every single State board in the State of North Carolina does not say the Pledge of Allegiance before their meetings it is not allowed in State meetings.” He closed in reference to the pledge in State board meetings saying, “Never, never, never quoted.” (Mr. Sheppard, sued Bladen Community College some years ago. Mr. Sheppard also made threats to sue Bladen County in October, 2019 when the Bladen County Board of Commissioners voted not to pay for his wife, Patsy Sheppard’s attorney. The request for the county to pay for Mrs. Sheppard’s attorney stemmed from a formal complaint filed against her with the North Carolina Board of Elections.)
After Sheppard spoke, Bladen County resident and business owner, Daine Smith stood to address the board. Smith explained he was unaffiliated and the issue did not have to do with party affiliation, but about respect for the flag and others’ rights. Smith then announced he would be citing the pledge if anyone would like to join him. As the majority in attendance stood and recited the pledge, the three democratic board members: Chairperson Thompson, Sheppard and Ms. Bell remained seated.
After the pledge was said Smith was reprimanded by Chairperson Thompson and then Sheppard called for a short recess. After the board returned the agenda items were addressed.
The action items on the agenda; approval of One-Stop Workers and approval of Election Day Workers were both approved after some discussion.
Director of the Bladen County Board of Elections gave dates for upcoming trainings and the board went into closed session citing personnel matters as the reason.
When the board reconvened Chairperson Thompson announced, “There are some personnel issues and there is a position we will be advertising for and we also discussed the disruption of the meeting.” She added, “At the next meeting if that happens again law enforcement will be called, so because it is against the law to disrupt a meeting that is going on and that is what happened today with the reciting of the pledge.”
The meeting was then adjourned.
The Bladen County Board of Elections meetings are held the second Tuesday of each month at 5:00 p.m. at 301 S. Cypress Street in Elizabethtown.
Update: Governor Roy Copper appointed Chairperson Thompson and Sheppard to the Bladen County Board of Elections. Therefore, BladenOnline.com reached out to Gov. Cooper by phone on Wednesday afternoon for comment.
On Wednesday evening at 8:10 p.m. Gov. Cooper’s office responded with a statement by email attributable to Communications Director Sadie Weiner:
“The Governor leads the Pledge of Allegiance before every Council of State meeting. He doesn’t agree with the action taken and he thinks it’s a good practice to say it before a Board of Elections meeting.”
Board members are sworn in every odd year. They serve two-year terms. There are usually five members, with no more than three being from the same party. The Republican and Democratic party chairs in the county nominate persons to serve on the board, and then the State Board of Elections or the NC Governor appoints the members.
BladenOnline.com also received an email from the office of Congressman Dan Bishop (NC-09) about this issue. Congressman Bishop stated, “I was appalled that the Chairwoman of the Bladen County Board of Elections will prevent board members—on threat of arrest—from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. It shows a twisted moral code to oppress the right to honor a flag that stands for freedom from oppression. I stand with the board members who continue to revere and respect our flag and those who lost their lives defending it.”
Not only are elected officials speaking out against the actions of the three board members, there are some raising questions about laws being broken.
The law Chairperson Thompson alluded to being violated was § 143-318.17. which states, “A person who willfully interrupts, disturbs, or disrupts an official meeting and who, upon being directed to leave the meeting by the presiding officer, willfully refuses to leave the meeting is guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.”
However, as the video shows the pledge was recited during the part of the meeting when Chairperson Thompson opened the floor to those in attendance giving each person in attendance permission to address the board.
Also, Chairperson Thompson may have unknowingly admitted to breaking NC Public meeting and closed session laws (§ 143-318.11. ) when she confirmed the board discussed the pledge issue during their closed session. The law states, “It is the policy of this State that closed sessions shall be held only when required to permit a public body to act in the public interest as permitted in this section. A public body may hold a closed session and exclude the public only when a closed session is required”
The North Carolina State Board of Elections may have the right to remove board members from breaking the laws according to § 163-22. Powers and duties of State Board of Elections.: “In performing these duties, the State Board shall have the right to hear and act on complaints arising by petition or otherwise, on the failure or neglect of a county board of elections to comply with any part of the election laws imposing duties upon such a board. The State Board of Elections shall have power to remove from office any member of a county board of elections for incompetency, neglect or failure to perform duties, fraud, or for any other satisfactory cause. Before exercising this power, the State Board shall notify the county board member affected and give that member an opportunity to be heard. When any county board member shall be removed by the State Board of Elections, the vacancy occurring shall be filled by the State Board of Elections.”
The minutes during the closed session where the pledge was discussed should be made public.
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