Local candidates find a batch of minor issues to debate

Published 12:22 pm Wednesday, September 30, 2015

By Diana McFarland

News editor

Missing authorizations, sign placement, fair booth locations and anonymous phone calls are just a few of the dust-ups so far leading up the November general election in Isle of Wight and Surry counties.   

Some candidates allege their opponents, or those acting for them, are breaking the law while another candidate is concerned with the separation of church and state.

Isle of Wight Sheriff’s candidate J. Russell Stephenson took issue with an advertisement, as well as signs, placed by his opponent, incumbent Sheriff Mark Marshall.  {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

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In Marshall’s joint ad with Commonwealth’s Attorney Georgette Phillips in The Smithfield Times fair tab, the advertisement failed to include Marshall or Phillips’ authorization.

While a violation, if reported, could result in a $50 – $100 fine, Stephenson felt there was a greater issue at play.

“Why would we, as a law enforcement person, violate Virginia state law,” Stephenson said, adding that many of Marshall’s signs also lack that authorization.

Marshall apologized for the omission and said, “The legal tagline of “authorized by” was an inadvertent omission that we didn’t catch at the time when we reviewed the proof. I take responsibility for missing it. I don’t have the luxury of campaigning full-time, because I am busy fighting crime and keeping citizens safe here in Isle of Wight County.”

Smithfield Times Editor and Publisher John Edwards also took responsibility for the lack of authorization statement that was not caught by himself or the advertising staff of the paper.

As for yard signs, Stephenson said his signs did not require an authorization because he purchased them before July 1. According to a new state law, campaign yard signs purchased and disseminated before July 1 do not need an authorization. Those purchased or disseminated after July 1 do require the authorization.

A check of Stephenson’s financial disclosure documents state that he paid out $1,502.62 on June 9 to Dirt Cheap Signs for yard signs.

Stephenson has noted that some of Marshall’s larger signs contain the authorization and some do not.

“All candidates for office with the exception of Georgette Phillips, have some signs that are missing the “authorized by” including my opponents. I have ordered stickers for ours and they are being affixed as we speak. I have not complained about it or some of the right-a-way violations because frankly, there are much more substantive issues that should be addressed by the candidates in this election,” Marshall said.

As for Marshall’s yard signs, he said most are recycled from the last campaign and thus purchased before July 1 of this year.

Surry Sheriff candidate Jonathan Beale also alleges someone is breaking election laws.

Beale said that an anonymous person has called at least 50 individuals and said untrue things about him.

Beale would address the caller, but caller I.D. states the number is blocked.

This person is violating election laws, Beale said.

According to The Virginia Department of Elections Summary of Laws and Policies for Candidate Campaign Committees, Beale may have a point. The policy states that callers must identify which candidate either paid for or authorized the call and not modify the caller identification information to mislead the recipient of the call.

In this case, the fine is greater than an authorization omission. It’s $2,500.

Back in Isle of Wight County, Stephenson also took issue with Marshall having a larger tent outside at the Isle of Wight County Fair, as did Phillips and Newport District Supervisor candidate William McCarty.

Initially miffed at what he considered being stuck in the non-profit tent, Stephenson later learned that Marshall’s campaign had simply asked about purchasing commercial space and the fair committee decided it was O.K. It was considerably pricier — $300 instead of the $25 fee for a spot inside the tent.

The fair committee decided that after the attorney general’s opinion about free speech it was fine to allow outside political booths as long as the campaign was willing to pay the higher fee, said Committee Chairman Danny Byrum.

The fair committee thought about sending an email to all candidates letting them know of the decision, but that didn’t happen. Instead, the committee will change the contract next year so candidates know that option is available, Byrum said.

“The last thing I wanted was any kind of issue,” Byrum said, referring to past conflicts over politics at the county fair, which led to several committee members quitting and the committee banning political booths. Del. Rick Morris took the issue to the Virginia attorney general, who opined that it was unconstitutional to prohibit free speech at a county fair.

Byrum said that in the end, it’s about making money for the fair.

“We’re sort of in the real estate business for those four days,” he said.

Over in Carrollton, Newport District Supervisor candidate Albert Burckard took issue with McCarty, also a pastor at Healing Waters Worship Center, for putting his campaign signs in front of his church on Smith’s Neck Road.

“After a 300-year hiatus, church and state merge once again,” wrote Burckard in the message line of an email that contained a photo of the offending signs.

After that email went out, McCarty sent one to all Newport candidates, inviting them to place their campaign signs in front of his church — with permission, of course.

However, the signs came down a few days later.

McCarty said his initial idea was to alert the community about all county candidates, but later decided it was best to avoid the appearance of doing anything wrong.

Sometimes people misinterpret things and the campaign didn’t want any misunderstandings, McCarty said.

According to the IRS, non-profits, such as churches, are prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign for elective public office.

Violating that tax law could jeopardize the organizations non-profit status, according to the IRS.

In his email, McCarty also advised candidates that if they took a photo of their own sign, and it included any of his church property, that they would require permission before distributing the photo due to possible violations of copyright law.

However, it is not a copyright infringement to take a photograph of a building or vehicle with a logo that is in plain sight along a public road.

McCarty said he realized that, but the message was aimed at Burckard, whom he said came onto the church property to take the photo rather than stand in the street.

He was seen the church’s video surveillance cameras, McCarty said.

Burckard said he thought he was on a neighbor’s property and any appearance of trespassing was accidental.

Burckard was also upset that McCarty was hosting what he called “political rallies” in the community room at Sentara St. Luke’s — the same room that the Carrollton Civic League meets and of which Burckard was recently president.

McCarty said Sentara only found out because Burckard called them, and that he will move to another location after Sentara St. Luke’s officials said they didn’t want to appear to be endorsing one candidate over another.

Efforts to reach officials with Sentara St. Luke’s were unsuccessful.

McCarty seemed frustrated with these attacks by his opponent.

“The whole reason I’m running is not to get in foolish fights,” he said.

There are 34 days left before the election Nov. 3.{/mprestriction}