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Bedford County supervisors address new robocall and 'First Amendment sanctuary' push
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Bedford County supervisors address new robocall and 'First Amendment sanctuary' push

BEDFORD — The Bedford County Board of Supervisors spoke out Monday in response to a continued push by some community members pressuring the board to pass a First Amendment sanctuary resolution opposing Gov. Ralph Northam’s emergency executive orders.

Bedford County residents have been coming to board of supervisors meetings since late November urging the board to pass a resolution that would reject Northam’s executive order limiting crowd sizes, among other coronavirus-related measures, saying such an order infringes on First Amendment rights of peaceful assembly.

A few versions of a proposed resolution for Bedford County have circulated since the fall, one based off Bedford County’s Second Amendment sanctuary resolution passed last year and another borrowed from a First Amendment sanctuary resolution passed Dec. 1 by the Campbell County Board of Supervisors. Campbell County’s resolution directed the county sheriff’s office not to assist any state officials attempting to enforce the governor’s executive orders within the county, and established the county will not contribute funds toward helping to enforce such orders.

About 20 people attended Monday’s meeting in Bedford County. Most attendees continued asking the board to defend their First Amendment rights and expressed concern for loss of work and business due to shutdowns and restrictions they called “unfair.”

Multiple times over the past two months, the board and county staff have explained that a board of supervisors has no authority to overrule state legislation or executive orders. The county attorney has said no resolution opposing executive orders would have any legal power, nor do local governing bodies have authority over constitutional officers, such as local law enforcement and the commonwealth’s attorney.

“The Virginia Constitution creates separation of powers between the various Constitutional Officers. One doesn’t govern the actions of the other, so any resolution from one Constitutional office purporting to ‘order’ another Constitutional Officer to do anything is facially invalid,” Bedford County Attorney Patrick Skelley said in an email.

District 4 Supervisor John Sharp repeatedly has said if the Bedford County Board of Supervisors took any action related to executive orders, such a response would come from the board, not outside sources.

“I want you to understand if you think that we’re not hearing you, not only do we hear you, the vast majority of us agree with you,” Sharp said Monday. “But the reality is, we do not have the authority that you’ve been misled to think we do.”

Sharp told his constituents the current Bedford County Board of Supervisors always has tried to defend the community’s rights, citing the board’s passage of a Second Amendment sanctuary resolution early in 2020 and reminding everyone Bedford County was one of a few Virginia counties to pass a resolution formally recognizing a local militia last May.

He added he allowed the county boardroom to be filled past capacity to give constituents a chance to express their concerns about Northam’s executive orders, which led him, along with Bedford County, to receive a citation from the Central Virginia Health District back in November warning of possible fines for violation of executive orders on crowd sizes. The mask mandate was not enforced, either.

Sharp said opposition to pandemic restrictions was a different situation from a legal standpoint, and reiterated his previous statement that if he were to pass a resolution refusing to enforce Northam’s executive orders, he would be overstepping his own bounds of authority — the same action he accuses the governor of doing.

“We’re not going to break the law and do exactly what we accuse Northam of, which is overstepping our bounds,” Sharp said.

District 6 Supervisor Bob Davis, who first presented the topic of a draft for a First Amendment sanctuary resolution at the encouragement of Bedford County resident and Virginia House of Delegates hopeful Isaiah Knight, in late November, said he was regretful and “embarrassed” for bringing the issue up before understanding it more thoroughly.

“I must confess that I feel like I made a rookie mistake,” Davis said at Monday’s meeting.

Davis scolded individuals who made “vicious” phone calls to Sharp regarding a perceived lack of response to the issue, reportedly hurling threats and insults at him. Davis said he was glorified for presenting the resolution while Sharp was “vilified” for declining to take action.

Sharp said he received more than 100 calls from people following the Nov. 23 meeting,.

Though many callers were frustrated, Sharp said, he was able to have productive conversations with most of them as he explained the Bedford board’s position and why no board of supervisors or a resolution would have any legal power in this situation.

Sharp said another influx of calls came after a robocall campaign launched by Knight last weekend. Sharp said he was able to have mostly productive conversations with those callers as well, but believed the robocalls were meant to harass him.

Knight’s robocall accused the Bedford County Board of Supervisors of “doing nothing” the past 10 months as the pandemic shut down or crippled businesses. He called for people to attend the Jan. 11 board of supervisors meeting to continue pressing the board to take action by defying Northam’s executive orders with a First Amendment sanctuary resolution. In the call was embedded a connection to Sharp’s phone number, prompting call recipients to “press one” to contact Sharp and “demand” he take action on the matter.

Knight said he opted for robocalls as a way to connect with his neighbors about issues in their community. Facebook cracked down on political advertising, he said, making it impossible to share his ads on the social media platform.

Sharp said he believes it might be illegal for an individual to connect someone’s personal phone number to such a robocall without express permission, and consequently, he reported the incident to the FBI.

According to the Federal Communications Commission rules for robocalls found at fcc.gov, “FCC rules require a caller to obtain your written consent — on paper or through electronic means, including website forms, a telephone keypress — before it may make a pre-recorded telemarketing call to your home or wireless phone number. FCC rules also require a caller to obtain your consent, oral or written, before it may make an autodialed or prerecorded call or text to your wireless number.”

Knight said he believes government published phone numbers of elected officials are allowed to be connected in robocalls, and therefore he connected Sharp’s phone number as it appears on the Bedford County government website.

“You can contact government officials on their government numbers, and that was his [Sharp’s] government advertised phone number,” Knight said. “My understanding is the company I use used legal means.”

Knight declined to say what company he worked with to orchestrate the robocalls.

Sharp said the phone number listed on the Bedford County government site is a number to his personal cell phone, which he said he pays for, not the local government. Therefore, he does not consider it a government phone number.

“I may be wrong, but if you connect to someone else without their permission, from what I understand, that’s illegal,” Sharp said of the robocall. He acknowledged a robocall connecting his number would be legal if he were working with someone and requested that service, as he may do if campaigning for election, but this is not such an instance.

District 2 Supervisor Edgar Tuck encouraged concerned residents to take their grievances directly to their state delegates in the General Assembly, or to the governor’s office. There, he said, would be the best chance to affect change. He suggested residents express support for HJ 513, legislation introduced by Republican delegate Tony Wilt that would limit the governor’s emergency executive orders to 45 days of effectiveness and require action from the General Assembly for any extension or further action.

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