The man in charge of upholding the law may have violated it twice in six months.
It started during last year’s municipal election and bled into the 2014 campaigns.
In October 2013, Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page stood in his office and endorsed a candidate running for mayor in Reidsville. His statement was recorded on video and published on YouTube.
It happened again this month.
Once again, Page stood in front of his hat-lined bookshelf inside his office at the Rockingham County Judicial Center and shook hands with one of the candidates, Craig Blitzer, running for Rockingham County District Attorney.
Blitzer runs against Assistant District Attorney Melanie Bridge for the position.
Page once again gave his video endorsement, which ran on YouTube, Blitzer’s campaign website and sent to media outlets via a press release.
The possible problem?
N.C. General Statute 153A-99, which discusses county employee political activities, states: “’Workplace means any place where an employee engages in his or her job duties. No employee while on duty or in the workplace may: use his or her authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election or nomination for political office…”
Page doesn’t deny making the videos in his office. In fact, he explains the endorsement by saying he believes that Blitzer is best for the job and supports him 100 percent. Rockingham Now ran a press release about the endorsement earlier this month.
After explaining the endorsement, Page denied doing anything wrong.
“First of all, I’m not aware of any wrong doings,” Page said. “It’s my understanding we’re in full compliance with any regulations or rules as it applies to the board of elections and also state statutes and my advice has come from my attorney.”
Page wouldn’t answer additional questions and redirected them to his attorney, Matt Smith.
The county has an attorney, Robert Shaver. Matt Smith is Page’s political attorney.
“The county attorney represents me on county affairs, and the campaign attorney represents me on any campaign-related issues,” Page said.
This isn’t a political issue, at least not for Page.
It’s actually a county issue because Page is a county employee and he used his office to endorse both candidates, according to the N.C. Board of Elections Compliance Specialist Sheryll Harris.
County Manager Lance Metzler’s initial reaction is that Page isn’t a county employee, despite being paid by county tax dollars, because he’s an elected official.
“We pay his salary but he’s just like [Register of Deeds] Rebecca [Cipriani] or anybody who is elected. They don’t, we really don’t have any guidelines over an elected official,” Metzler said. “I talked to the attorney about it and that’s how it’s concluded.”
The N.C. Attorney General’s Office disagrees.
If fact, it set a precedent in 1998 on this specific law and specifically the sheriff’s duty to abide by this law.
Retired-Senior Deputy Attorney General Ann Reed and then-Special Deputy Attorney General Charles J. Murray signed a letter to the N.C. General Assembly’s then-Staff Attorney William Gilkeson that shed light on this situation.
The letter discussed the Carter v. Good case where a sheriff argued he wasn’t a county employee and didn’t violate the same law when he fired a deputy for supporting his opponent, which the General Statute also discusses.
The United States District Court in Shelby ruled the sheriff as a county employee and in violation of this state law.
The Attorney General’s office went one step further in the letter and wrote: “Based on the preceding authority, we conclude that the provisions of N.C. G.S. 153A-99 and N.C. G.S. 160A-169 are applicable to elected officials of counties and cities.”
A spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office provided the letter in response to inquiry about who actually employs a sheriff.
Following the court’s precedents, later agreed upon by the Attorney General’s office, means Page must follow this law.
The county isn’t having it, though.
Metzler spoke with both the state and local board of elections, which concluded there’s no violation to the election laws, which is true.
The two boards look at campaign finance laws. Harris and Rockingham County Board of Elections director Tina Cardwell said this isn’t a campaign issue but an issue of state law which excludes both boards from deciding anything regarding Page’s actions.
Cardwell said no one has filed a complaint with her office regarding the video. If someone did, she said, she planned to contact the state board of elections, who already said this isn’t a campaign finance issue.
“There were no state violations, it would fall under local jurisdiction which is the county,” Metzler said. “I reviewed the personnel policy and I looked at the part where it says political activity.”
Metzler said the county’s own bylaws have slightly different wording on employees' engagement in political activities. The bylaws also gave immunity to the sheriff, the county manager and the register of deeds, despite a state law saying otherwise.
“Technically there is nothing we can do about that,” Metzler said.
That being the case, this falls back on local law enforcement to uphold a state law.