DOBSON — Four of the five members of the Surry County Board of Commissioners turned on their chairman Monday night, saying they were upset that he signed a document they think makes the county look bad.
Unbeknownst to four commissioners, three days before the June board meeting, Chairman Larry Johnson signed a memorandum of understanding penned by the Surry County Chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). The mayors of Dobson, Elkin and Pilot Mountain also signed.
At the start of Monday night’s meeting during open session, Semona Creasy, of Abner Lane, told the board how upset she was when she saw the contents of the memo. Chairman Johnson was not in attendance Monday.
“The letter included language addressing ‘systemic impacts of racial injustice’ and racial inequalities. The letter further committed the officials to focus on cultural competency, educational training as well as a review of current hiring practices and ongoing internal reviews,” Creasy said.
“When read in totality, the letter clearly asserts that the systemic racism occurs in Surry County and throughout America, and the letter alludes to police participation in this systemic problem,” she said. “These assertions are false, and the response by these officials is appalling.
“There’s no doubt that individuals in America are racist. If we are honest, we will admit there are racist people among all ethnic and racial groups. There is no doubt that individual police officers have committed crimes, but to assert that the majority of officers are guilty by association is dishonest, ridiculous and dangerous.”
She went on to say, “Most Americans have long ago learned how to live in peace and harmony, and one need look no further than the election of a black president in 2008 – and a reelection in 2012 – to prove this point. This election would not have been possible without heavy support from the white Americans.”
Creasy said Johnson as well as the mayors of Pilot Mountain and Dobson signed this document without the issue coming before their respective boards.
Elkin Mayor Sam Bishop did bring the document before his town board, and the board members gave it their approval.
Creasy said the letter seems to commit the towns and the county “to changes in hiring practices and other administrative changes that could cost the towns and county millions of taxpayer dollars and resort to reverse discrimination.
“Legal protections for minorities are already in place in Surry County and throughout America. Many of these protections give preferential treatment to minorities in terms of jobs, college scholarships and other government benefits. What more do these officials intend to provide?”
She continued, “This letter was signed by weak leaders unwilling to face the tough issues of the day in public with transparency. This letter may cause untold strife and challenges to our county, our towns and our residents.
“All the elected officials involved should apologize for signing this letter without following proper public input procedure. All elected officials involved should apologize to the people of Surry County for painting them with a racist label. And they should apologize to the police officers for insulting the systemic integrity of those who protect and serve.
“Any leaders unwilling to take responsibility for these actions should resign immediately.”
The NAACP statement at the center of the controversy alluded to the death of George Floyd and systemic racism in the nation, and asked the local officials to join with the NAACP “to work on eradicating such injustices. Upcoming collaborations will focus on cultural competency, educational training, as well as a review of current hiring practices and ongoing internal reviews.”
Elder Craig Smith, the president of NAACP Surry Branch 5459, told The Mount Airy News, “I just thought it would be proactive to work together on some possible changes,” instead of reacting after the fact of a tragedy.
After the documents were signed, he questioned why some local government operations tend to be all-white, observing that one needn’t possess a college degree in order to take water and sewer payments at City Hall.
After the board finished its regular agenda items, Vice Chair Mark Marion asked the commissioners about any general county business.
Commissioner Eddie Harris went back to the NAACP memorandum of understanding.
“The first I knew about it was in The Mount Airy News when it was printed and I started receiving some calls,” Harris said.
“The thing that concerns me most is that it involves county policy and it involves legal matters. And I don’t think a board chair who obviously inadvertently signed this, I’m guessing, has that discretion. Because in effect he is speaking for the entire board as the chairman. … That begs the question: where do we go from here?”
Harris added, “The memorandum of understanding … refers to systemic racism in the United States, and it has a laundry list — educational training, cultural competency — a lot of matters that involve county policy.
“This commissioner does not believe that our country is systemically racist.”
“Our country’s been ripped apart by rioting and looting and violence. I don’t know that I have seen any disavowal of the riots, the looting and the violence by anyone in the NAACP — also nothing about defunding the police or the tax on our law enforcement.”
Harris added, “I want to say I do condemn police brutality where it exists. … The rule of law dictates a judicial process, and it applies equally to everyone regardless of race, creed or color. That’s what the Constitution says. … You simply can’t adjudicate these matter with mob rule, violence, lawlessness, killing of police officers.
“The officers involved in the George Floyd incident, they will face the rule of law and rightly so. I condemn police brutality and racism in every form as a county commissioner. … Not to say that there isn’t racism that still exists in the United States, because I’m sure that there is. But is it systemic? I don’t think so.”
“Speaking for me,” Commissioner Tucker began, “I want to tell you I totally disavow any acknowledgement that any of this is true. I totally disavow that I had any foreknowledge of it. There was no discussion with me. There was no collaboration, there was no consensus, there was no phone call … and there was no vote of any kind.
“When I’m alerted by the public that the Mount Airy News has issued an article outlying a letter that basically says that the NAACP and elected officials of Surry County would like to issue a statement regarding racial injustice, and it is signed by … Larry Johnson, the chairman of this board, not (just) Larry Johnson — you know what? If those fellows wanted to sign that, that’s their business.
“I’m not going to call them out tonight for taking an opportunity to maybe be politically correct at a time when we were just at a focal point and an absolute fervor over a national debate concerning racial injustice (which we all condemn, we don’t want no part of it).
“But you know, if these guys signed it because they thought it was politically expedient, then you known what, shame on them. And … if they signed it because they think it’s true, you know what, shame on them again.
“Why are they just now taking this issue to heart, and why are they just now acknowledging it, and why are they just now willing to admit it and do something about it? But again, that’s their business.”
As for the document being signed with the tagline of “chairman of the Surry County Commissioners,” Tucker said, “I don’t mean to throw Larry Johnson under the bus. Larry Johnson’s a good guy. … I don’t hate Larry Johnson, but I can tell you right now I don’t agree with it at all.”
Speaking to County Attorney Ed Woltz, Tucker said he would assume that the signed document would have no power over the elected board.
No official action was taken by the board, said Woltz. He said his legal view would be that Mr. Johnson signed the form in his individual capacity as there was no deliberation and no vote by the governing board.
“There’s really nothing for this board to do because no action was ever taken,” Woltz said.
In that case, then Tucker and Harris said they would be satisfied to say publicly that they didn’t support it.
Commissioner Bill Goins said when he received a phone call about the memo, he hadn’t seen the newspaper article yet. Once he did look it over and saw what the memo contained, he said, “It looked in appearance that the board had taken an action and it had been approved because it said ‘elected officials.’
Since I’ve been on the board I feel confident in the hiring practices of the county, that we do it in a fair and equitable manner. I’ll even get into law enforcement. We have one of the best law enforcement agencies in the state of North Carolina in the Surry County Sheriff’s Office. If I thought for a minute that they weren’t doing things right, we’d be on it in a minute.”
He agreed that there is racism present in this country, but he disagrees with the notion that it could be embedded in county government.
“And if I thought so, I’d do something about it.”
Marion said, “I wish Commissioner Johnson were here to defend himself; unfortunately he’s out sick. I will not speculate on what Commissioner Johnson was thinking when he signed this or whether he thought he was signing this as a person and not the commission. Or how it was presented to him. I know that sometimes things are presented in a manner that … things are not what they seem, put it like that.”
When some audience members grumbled over Marion seeming to defend Johnson, the vice chairman answered, “I’m not taking up for him. I said I would not speculate what he was thinking or how it was presented to him. He might not have read the thing, you know?
“I don’t agree with it. I’m pulling myself away from it, and I wish Commissioner Johnson would reach out and explain what he was thinking when it all happened.”
Telephone calls to Chairman Johnson on Tuesday for comment were not returned.
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